Sibelius: Belshazzar’s Feast Suite; Swanwhite Suite; Scènes historiques; Suite No. 1; Suite No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Finlandia
WORKS: Belshazzar’s Feast Suite; Swanwhite Suite; Scènes historiques; Suite No. 1; Suite No. 2
PERFORMER: Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Ari Rasilainen
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-41935-2
This is an intelligent and useful collection and the performances are of quality. All but the second set of Scènes historiques derive from music written for the stage. Both Belshazzar’s Feast (1906) and Swanwhite (1908) are among Sibelius’s most atmospheric scores. The former, written for a play by Hjalmar Procopé (totally unremembered nowadays except in the context of Sibelius’s music), can easily be spoilt by unimaginative playing, for its delicacy and poetry are elusive. No such problems here for both the inspired ‘Night Music’ and ‘Khadra’s Dance’ are sensitively shaped by the Norwegian players and their Finnish conductor.

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Among Strindberg’s plays, Swanwhite is rarely staged but Sibelius, always an avid Strindbergian, lavished some very fine music on it. Rasilainen is right inside these scores and gets dedicated playing from his fine orchestra, though once or twice there is the odd miscalculation of balance: for example, the inner parts, supportive chords on horns and brass swamp the strings in ‘The Prince Alone’. (A tiny point: the title of the third movement, ‘Tärnorna med rosor’ is inaccurately translated – it should be ‘The Maidens with Roses’.)

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The first set of the Scènes historiques is drawn from the music he had composed for the Press Celebrations pageant in 1899 and both they and the second set (1912), unconnected with the pageant, have the same freshness and sense of pleasure. The players sound as if they are enjoying this music and their enthusiasm comes across. Robert Layton