This is a very good idea – the coupling of music that Arthur Sullivan (at the beginning of his composing career) and Jean Sibelius (at the end of his) wrote for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.
It is good to be reminded that Sullivan had a composing life outside of his relationship with wordsmith W. S. Gilbert. His music for “The Tempest” was completed in 1861, when he was 19, and therefore long-before he and Gilbert met and collaborated. The seven movements of the published Suite are full of memorable and ingenious touches, always tuneful, light of style and sometimes anticipating of the “Savoy Operas”. Which is not to say that gloom and atmosphere are in short supply; they are not; but, above all, one relishes Sullivan’s gift for melody, his lucid and varied orchestration and an ability to portray and suggest without labouring. There is much here that enchants; sometimes a movement might pass as French (Delibes, say) and the ‘Prelude to Act Three’ (the Suite’s second section) could easily be nominated as being by Mendelssohn or Schumann – indeed Sullivan conducted the complete ‘Tempest’ score in Leipzig (Mendelssohn territory) where he also later studied. But these facts are neither here nor there – keeping it simple, Sullivan wrote some splendid music for “The Tempest” and it’s good to have it in a new and sympathetic version.
Sibelius’s score for “The Tempest” – which here follows Sullivan’s example after too short a gap – is amongst his greatest achievements (and contemporaneous with the astonishing Tapiola); superbly characterful, wonderfully inventive and brilliantly orchestrated. As Antony Hodgson, in his booklet note, reminds, although Sibelius (1865-1957) had another 30 or so years to live, both Tapiola and “The Tempest” were more or less ‘it’ as far as his creativity was concerned (leaving aside the vexed question of the written-and-destroyed Eighth Symphony).
In his music for “The Tempest” – as re-orchestrated for Suite purposes – Sibelius’s genius for economy and characterisation go hand-in-hand: every note matters and from bar one of each piece we are in no doubt as to what is being portrayed; and, musically, so much is gripping and captivating; and extensive, too – powerful, tender and witty. ‘Ariel’s Song’ (the penultimate movement of Suite No.1 and here shorn of its ‘Entr’acte’ designation) could well have strayed from the great Fourth Symphony; elsewhere, though, Sibelius is looking forward and seems to be on the verge of new directions (not ones he was able to share though).
On this recording, the placing of Suite No.2 before No.1 doesn’t quite convince. Yes, having the ‘Prelude’ return (as ‘The Storm’, the finale of Suite No.1) at the very end of the whole sequence does
make sense. But maybe there was an opportunity to place the movements in an order corresponding to the events of the play, while keeping the full-circle return of Sibelius’s extraordinary depiction of a storm?
Even so, Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony do the music proud. I wouldn’t suggest that such as Thomas Beecham, Charles Groves (my yardstick), Horst Stein and Leif Segerstam are usurped, but this account sits happily with them. The very final chord of ‘The Storm’ – to end the sequence – could have been more incisive in its cutting off, the ‘last word’ being the ricocheting response of the church!
The recording – obviously aimed at those who appreciate sound in the fullest sense – is slightly compromised by the too-resonant acoustic, yet the reproduction has terrific impact, space and glow; whatever the reservations, one perceives the naturalness of the orchestra within a specific acoustic. However, the reverberation (several seconds) can occlude detail following fortissimos; and, maybe this is the conductor’s preference, what should be balefully prominent woodwinds lose out significantly in Sibelius’s ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Storm’ (same music, different titles!). Splicing between movements could have been more seamless, especially between the linked (here separately tracked) ‘Intrada-Berceuse’ (Suite 1) which is disrupted by a sloppy join.
Pernickety comments, maybe, but Reference Recordings seeks perfection (one perceives) and falls a little shorter than one might have expected – particularly in the choice of recording-venue and in the editing. Nevertheless, Sullivan’s contribution is very worthwhile and Sibelius’s wonderful score retains its allure and its distinction.