From the very first notes of the Overture to Sibelius’ Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s the Tempest, we are made aware that this is a very unusual work. The strings spend the entire movement moving stepwise up and down chromatically in fussy trochaic triplets, while the wind play sustained chords of augmented triads—the music never, ever, settles on to a normal diatonic chord, and gives a strong feel of the whole-tone scale (an indirect Debussy reference?). This is utterly visionary sound-painting, and in the theatre stood in for the storm at the start of the play in which the ship bearing the Neopolitan noblemen is apparently wrecked. Even more astonishing is that Sibelius is able to maintain this amazing soundworld for a full seven minutes, ending solely by drawing the music down to silence—no resolution is permitted. Shocking, too, after all this tonal ambiguity, is the profoundly diatonic but unorthodox third-inversion seventh which opens the first movement, the Oak Tree, from the Tempest Suite One. In fact, the entire First Suite is unsettlingly strange, with oddly exotic melodies, original harmonic invention, and airy orchestration—this is Sibelius at his most fantastic, and reminiscent of Nielsen’s equally remarkable Aladdin music, written a few years previously. Suite Two, by comparison, is courtly and broad, songlike, with groundedly tonal gestures, culminating in a poised but curiously unfinal ‘Dance-Episode’ that exemplifies the fugitive character of the whole work. It is typical of Sibelius’s genius that the eighteen movements of the Suites are almost uniformly brief and succinct, and yet cover an extraordinary emotional and formal range, from the amorphously threatening (the Storm) to the elegantly nostalgic (Miranda).
I hope I have suggested to the reader that, despite its unfamiliarity, the Tempest music is among Sibelius’ finest accomplishments—it is also among his very last works. Few pieces, even of his, have the necessary gravitas to join the Tempest on CD, and Kamu wisely elects to complete the disc with compelling performances of two symphonic poems: the brief and introspective the Bard, and Sibelius’ towering masterpieceTapiola—both strong enough not to feel anticlimactic. The combination of these three magisterial works makes this CD is a welcome addition to BIS’ extensive Sibelius catalogue, which also includes a recording of the complete Tempest music with the same orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä. Both are indispensible inclusions in any serious Sibelius-fancier’s collection.