December 31, 2008


Weber: Overtures—Euryanthe, Peter Schmoll und Seine Nachbarn, Oberon, Der Beherrscher der Geister, Turandot (Overture and Act II March), Preciosa, Silvana, Jubel-Ouvertüre, Abu Hassan, Der Freischütz. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $8.99.

Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise; Pan and Echo; Suite from “Belshazzar’s Feast”; Two Pieces for Orchestra; Kuolema. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

     Carl Maria von Weber and Jean Sibelius are best known as composers of long-form works – operas and symphonies, respectively. But they excelled in small doses as well, as these CDs show. The Weber disc includes excerpts from the incidental music for Turandot and Preciosa, plus the standalone Der Beherrscher der Geister (“Ruler of the Spirits” and Jubel-Ouvertüre (the latter containing an exuberant version of “God Save the King”) – as well as opera overtures, including those for Weber’s final three and most famous works, Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon. What is interesting about this music is how uniformly well-constructed it is, from the earliest piece here (Peter Schmoll und Seine Nachbarn, 1801-2) to the latest (Oberon,1825-6). Weber, who died at age 40 of tuberculosis, was enormously influential on the development of German Romantic opera. These overtures help explain why: they are tightly knit, dramatically structured and very well orchestrated (the orchestra plays a more important role in German opera than in Italian). They often have internal “tone poem” consistency, using themes from an opera to tell its story even before the curtain rises, as Beethoven did with his Leonore overtures before discarding them for the Fidelio overture. Among Weber’s overtures, that for Der Freischütz is most impressive for encapsulating the opera in 10 minutes – but without leaving listeners feeling as if they have had all the emotional highs and lows before the first scene (which was the defect, from a staging perspective, in the Leonore overtures, especially No. 3). Weber’s music is vivid and intense, and even his minor pieces, such as Jubel-Ouvertüre, are skillfully put together and carry a listener along very effectively. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays these pieces very well; and except in the Euryanthe overture, where he overdoes some tempo fluctuations, Antoni Wit lets the music unfold naturally and with a minimum of gimmickry – a good decision, since Weber speaks best when presented straightforwardly.

     The same orchestra does an equally fine job under Pietari Inkinen with some of Sibelius’ less-known pieces. Inkinen has a fine feel for Sibelius’ rhythms and harmonies, which are every bit as intricate in his theater music – of which he wrote quite a bit – as in his symphonies. For example, Sibelius composed six pieces of incidental music for Kuolema (“Death”), a play by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. The first two, Valse triste and Scene with Cranes, date to 1904-6 and are very well known. Inkinen offers the entire orchestral suite, which also includes Canzonetta and Valse romantique, less-known but equally interesting short works composed in 1911 (the other two pieces that Sibelius wrote for the play are songs). From Sibelius’ incidental music to Hjalmar Procopé’s play Belshazzar’s Feast, Inkinen presents a four-movement suite with an Oriental flavor. Also on this CD are Two Pieces for Orchestra, of which The Dryad is moodily impressionistic and Tanz-Intermezzo is lighthearted (and includes castanets, a rarity in Sibelius’ music). There is also another Tanz-Intermezzo on the disc – No. 3, a mythic evocation called Pan and Echo. And there is one of Sibelius’ substantial symphonic poems: Night Ride and Sunrise, a tripartite work that starts with an extended and very modern-sounding galloping section, moves into a hymnlike portion, and concludes with a lovely sonic portrayal of a Northern sunrise. If none of these works (except Valse triste) is likely to supplant any of Sibelius’ symphonies as a “signature” of the composer, all of them show aspects of his style to excellent effect, proving that he – like Weber – could communicate as effectively in smaller works as in larger ones.

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