Sibelius wrote incidental music for some ten or a dozen theatrical productions. There are selections from two of these here, together with four other works, one of which is definitely a tone-poem and three can be classified as tone-poems for want of any other category to put them in. There are several good reasons for recommending this issue. One is that the performances are excellent, another is that the recorded sound is excellent, and another is that the value is excellent. Naxos just seem to keep coming up trumps in terms of imagination, boldness, general quality and sheer value for money. May they continue to defy trends in the world economy that other enterprises are going to find a problem.
I have recently bought two other Sibelius issues, and to start with I have played Night Ride and Sunrise from both of them by way of a benchmark for assessing this disc. Whether first impressions will last I have no way of telling, but while they are all I have I would award first place to this account in preference to either the Lahti SO or even the classic version by the ultra-dependable Dorati with the great LSO. There would have to be a very good reason indeed for such a ranking, and the reason is the recorded quality. The sound here is fresh and clean, and that gets the disc off to a tremendous start with the terrific opening bars of Night Ride and Sunrise. I suppose I have to add a further compliment - to the editing. Those great opening bars are followed by a further 16 and ½ minutes of great music, and I can hardly imagine a more brilliant initial impression being made. Whether Night Ride and Sunrise is even yet appreciated for the great work it is, indeed whether it is even performed much, I do not know; but placed like this, and played like this, it has a real chance of its
stature being more widely recognised.
One of the sets of incidental music is to Kuolema, which being interpreted is `Death'. Sounds good, wouldn't you say? It does to me, and in my own opinion it is good. The numbers we have here are two later interpolations plus two long-time favourites, the Scene with Cranes and the great Valse Triste itself. I love it to this day, and the eerie impression is created as it should be in this performance. No doubt this is an instance of music being the secondary factor, written to illustrate a scene, but the irony is that the scene it illustrates is actually a dance - i.e. a piece of music in its turn. The music to Belshazzar's Feast is not an everyday item on concert-schedules that I get to see, and the music is not the equal of what Walton produced, let alone Handel. However the two slow pieces are very effective, and all four are very well performed as usual.
Why Sibelius produced so many 5-minute (sometimes even shorter) tone-poems I have never understood, nor does the liner note say why a couple of them are called `Dance-Intermezzo'. I had a look in Robert Layton's book on the master, but no joy there either I'm afraid. Neither Pan and Echo nor The Dryad is illustrative to any great extent, and with the rarest exceptions, notably the Valse Triste, Sibelius's `programme' music usually seems to me more a matter of music first and picturesque images afterwards than the other way about. This is what I sense strongly in Night Ride and Sunrise. If the title had never been given by the composer, who would have thought of it? The second part is not remotely suggestive of a sunrise, and although it is easy and natural to think of a long solitary ride on horseback in the first section, nothing demands such an image. It is perfectly easy to depict such a scene, witness Schubert's Erlkoenig or the way Berlioz represents the ride to the abyss. The thing can even be done with just a few notes, as in a spooky song by Mendelssohn about a ghostly castle. Sibelius's rhythm is nowhere near so literal, and where does the strange snarling knot of discords right at the start fit in?
When we find so good a performance of Night Ride and Sunrise as this is, it's worth doing some fresh thinking. Sibelius's `hints' are as confused and as confusing as those of Shostakovich are concerning the `Leningrad' symphony. On Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays it was connected with a sleigh ride, on Tuesdays and Thursdays it was suggested by or at least at the Colosseum in Rome, and at weekends it was something to do with a train journey. May I suggest - just forget the lot, title and all. And there is something else. Nothing else in this recital displays a completely unique and unmistakable musical tone and idiom which at its most awesome makes Sibelius, for me, quite the greatest composer of the 20th century. On this disc it is hurled in our faces from the first notes. From there on I carry on hearing that strange opening sequence, with its lonely and almost unaccompanied violin figuration, just as music, the music of probably the only composer who could make music in such a way. Be careful of the liner note here, incidentally. In general it is fine, but the author has swallowed too much of what he has been told in other conventional commentaries, to the extent of committing outright misrepresentation when he talks of his supposed `horse's hooves' `growing in intensity'. Just listen to it - they do nothing of the kind, and that is what makes this passage so unique and extraordinary.
Even by the high Naxos standards that I am used to, this disc is something special.