February 14, 2008


Sibelius: Scènes historiques I and II; King Christian II Suite. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

Anderson: Orchestral Music, Volume 1—Bugler’s Holiday; Blue Tango; The First Day of Spring; Belle of the Ball; Governor Bradford March; Clarinet Candy; The Captains and the Kings; The Golden Years; Chicken Reel; Fiddle-Faddle; The Classical Jukebox; China Doll; Balladette; Arietta; Piano Concerto in C Major. BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin; Jeffrey Biegel, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      There may be no great music on either of these CDs, but there is plenty of very good music, including much that is infrequently heard and that provides new insight into two very different composers. The Sibelius disc showcases the two three-movement suites called Scènes historiques, based on music Sibelius had written in 1899. The first suite was published in 1911 and the second just a year later, but there is quite a contrast between them. The 1899 music was written specifically for political reasons after a clampdown on press freedoms by Russia, which at the time controlled Finland. The final piece written by Sibelius for this purpose – and not part of either suite – was none other than Finlandia. The first of the suites features mostly traditional rhythms and harmonies and a generally upbeat, assertive manner. The second suite develops the 1899 material quite differently and sounds more “Sibelian.” Its first movement features horns heard as if through mist; its second uses muted and divided violas; and its third opens with a pizzicato section that is reminiscent of his symphonies. The suites are very well played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Pietari Inkinen: the ensemble lacks the complete cohesion of the very best orchestras, but its sections are well balanced and its members play with strength and sensitivity. They do a find job with the King Christian II Suite, too. This work dates to 1898 and is based on incidental music for a play about a Scandinavian king who loves a Dutch commoner; the woman is poisoned by an unsuccessful suitor, and the king exacts a bloody revenge. The five-movement suite is mostly tender until the concluding movement. Its first two movements are an extended Nocturne – a love scene – and an Elégie for strings alone. The third and fourth movements are played at moderate tempos, and it is only in the finale, representing the king’s rage, that the music becomes speedy and hectic. None of these works is among Sibelius’ best, but all contain glimmers of his unique handling of orchestral forces and his skillful tone painting – and all are worth hearing.

      In contrast to the serious Sibelius, Leroy Anderson is forever identified as a composer of light music – and so, in the main, he was. But the first CD in a new Naxos series of all Anderson’s orchestral music contains a surprise: a full-scale piano concerto, written in 1953, that is skillfully crafted and filled with the tunefulness that marks Anderson’s briefer pieces. The work is not an unqualified success, but its finale is delightful, featuring an unmistakably Andersonian second theme that bubbles with good will. Jeffrey Biegel plays the concerto with verve and apparent ease, and the BBC Concert Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin provides first-rate accompaniment – and seems to have as much fun with the concerto as with the shorter pieces that make up the remainder of the disc. There are some surprises among those brief works: in addition to the highly familiar ones, such as Bugler’s Holiday and Fiddle Faddle, there are some sendups (Chicken Reel, The Classical Jukebox), a previously unrecorded work (Governor Bradford March, which sounds more like Sousa than Anderson), and a few less-known pieces that are more introspective than most Anderson miniatures (such as Balladette and Arietta). Most Anderson works run four minutes or less – he wrote them to fit on a single side of a 78-rpm record or, later, a 45-rpm vinyl single – but they often perk through multiple moods in their short running time, almost like miniature tone poems; and, although scarcely masterpieces, they retain a considerable amount of charm.

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