Friday, August 10, 2007

CD REVIEW: Sibelius Maiden in the Tower

JEAN SIBELIUS The Maiden in the Tower; Pelléas et Mélisande; Valse tristeSolveig Kringelborn (soprano); Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo soprano); Lars-Erik Jonsson (tenor); Garry Magree (baritone) Estonian National Symphony OrchestraPaavo JärviVirgin Classics- 5 45493 2(CD)Reference Recording - Maiden: This One

The Maiden in the Tower is a fresh, tuneful, not-quite-fabulous one-act opera scarcely 35 minutes long. The plot could hardly be more rudimentary: the big bad bailiff has the hots for the (no-name) maiden. She rebuffs him and he locks her up in the tower of the title. Her boyfriend hears her calls for help and alerts the bailiff's boss, who dresses him down and makes him free the maiden, to general rejoicing. Sibelius wrote the opera in Swedish for some sort of Finnish lady's tea club (those were the days, eh?), expertly scoring it for smallish orchestra and using coloristic devices of the utmost simplicity--such as bass-drum rolls that last for minutes on end--to create tension and atmosphere. In its modest way, it works very well. Just about the only character that matters is that of the maiden, who has a wonderful "prayer aria", and Solveig Kringelborn assumes the role admirably. The remainder of the cast is similarly adroit, as is Paavo Järvi's leadership.
As for the remainder of the program, Järvi's direction of Pelléas and Mélisande, one of Sibelius' finest scores, is about as good as it gets. Tempos are ideally chosen: the opening At the Castle Gate has majesty without turning heavy; the eerie scene of Mélisande at her spinning wheel has an aptly sinister quality; and the sunny Entr'acte is vivacious without turning frantic. Mélisande's Death also has just the right touch of restraint, which makes the piece all the more moving. The orchestra plays marvelously both here and in the Valse triste, and the recording is excellent, making this an unusually desirable Sibelius disc that many music lovers will want to add to their collections. It lasted in the domestic catalog for about 12 seconds, and so it's particularly welcome in this on-demand pressing, complete with original notes and full Swedish/English libretto (hooray!).
David Hurwitz

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