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Appreciating Sibelius’s Luonnotar Op. 70 by Anne Ozorio

Luonnotar (Op. 70, 1913) must be one of the most distinctive pieces in the repertoire. It transcends both song and symphonic form. Fiendishly difficult to perform, this unique piece needs an appreciation of the very unusual mind that shaped it. Sibelius was at a crossroads. With his Fourth Symphony he was reaching towards new horizons but hadn’t quite come to terms with their implications. While he kept up with Schoenberg and the modernists, he had long realised that he was not part of the German tradition. He knew he was approaching uncharted waters and the prospect was daunting. As so often before, he turned to the ur-source of Finnish mythology for inspiration.

Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made "in a solitude of ether". Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies, looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg white the moon, the mottled bits the stars. This was the creation myth of the Karelians who represented the ancient soul of the Finnish cultural identity.

The Kalevala was a motherlode for Sibelius, and he adapted it in a strikingly individual way. The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run to pieces like Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, "driving" passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans.

But it is the voice part which is astounding. Technically this piece is a killer – there are leaps and drops of almost an octave within a single word. When Luonnotar calls out for help, her words are scored like strange, sudden swoops of unworldly sounds supposed to resound across the eternal emptiness. These hint of the wailing, keening style that Karelian singers used. This cannot be sung with any trace of conservatoire trained artifice: the sounds are supposed to spring from primeval forces. After the duck approaches in a quite delightful passage of dancing notes, the goddess who expresses agony for its predicament. Those cries of "Ei! Ei!" – and their echo – sound avant-garde even by modern standards. The breath control required for this must be formidable. Singing over the cataclysmic orchestral climax that builds up from "Tuuli kaatavi, tuuli kaatavi!" must be quite some challenge. The sonorous wall of sound Sibelius creates is like the tsunami described in the text, and the soprano is riding on its crest.

Luonnotar is a complex creature, godlike and childlike at the same time, strong enough to survive eons of floating in ravaged seas, yet gentle enough to cradle a hapless duck. The singer needs to convey that raw primal energy, yet also somehow show the kindness and humour. The sheer physical stamina of singing this tour de force probably accounts for its relative rarity on the concert platform. Luonnotar swam underwater for centuries, so a soprano attempting this must pray for "swimmers lungs".

The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfilment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: "Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale". ("They became the stars in the heavens!"). I can just imagine a singer eyes shining with excitement at this point - and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, "the soprano line is built on the contrast between … the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical".

In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, I can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise and to the point Seventh Symphony. The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or "Spirit of the Waves", just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves. The Oceanides, written for a lucrative commission from the United States, is a more popular work, and beautiful, but doesn’t have quite the unconventional intensity and uniqueness of Luonnotar. Soon after, the First World War broke out, and the Finnish War of Independence, and Sibelius’ life changed yet again.

Luonnotar was written for, and premiered by the great Finnish soprano, Aino Ackté. Given that she was a diva, I’m not sure what she would have made of the grittier aspects of the piece, but she was a Finnish nationalist after all, and knew its implications. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was another early champion. When she sang it in Helsinki in 1955, she was moved to say that it was the "best thing she had ever done in her life". It was also central to the repertoire of Elisabeth Söderström, who was so deeply attuned to the composer’s idiom. Her recording, made with Ashkenazy, was for years the best version readily available, and remains a classic. Also worth tracking down is the version by the Danish soprano Mari-Ann Häggander. Recordings, though, don’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in the music world. Soile Isokoski sings it in recital so frequently that she’s become identified with it. The recording by Karita Mattila is a big seller, because she’s such a big name … and good. There’s lots of choice these days. I’ve heard most of those available, and have some strong favourites … and a few I don’t like. But by far, the best advice is always to keep listening, to as many versions as possible, to hear how performances bring insight. If you really love a piece of music, it gets addictive, and good performers create anew each time. Genuine appreciation really only comes through the process of listening and understanding.

Anne Ozorio

RECORDING OF THE MONTH July 2006
Jean SIBELIUS
(1865-1957)
Luonnotar and Orchestral Songs
Kaiutar, Op. 72/4,
Luonnotar, Op. 70, Men min fågel märks dock icke, Op. 36/2, Säv, säv susa, Op. 36/4, Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36/6, Våren flyktar hastigt, Op. 13/4, Under strandens granar, Op. 13/1, Den första kyssen, Op. 37/1, Soluppgång, Op. 37/3, Var det en dröm?, Op. 37/4, Höstkväll, Op. 38/1, På verandan vid havet, Op. 38/2, Arioso, Op. 3 Illalle, Op. 17/6, Lastu lainehilla, Op. 17/7, Souda, souda, sinisorsa, S'en har jag ej frågat mera, Op. 17/1, En slända, Op. 17/5, Hertig Magnus, Op. 57/6 Soile Isokoski (soprano) Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam rec. Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, October 2005. DDD ONDINE ODE 1080-5 SACD [61:37] [RB/AOz]

 

 


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