A good (albeit tawdry)
reason for buying this opera CD would
be to get one up on your friends. Here
is a first recording of a major work
by a composer of whom your friends have
possibly never heard. Described in music
dictionaries (if you can find an entry,
that is: even the mighty Grove only
manages a single short paragraph) as
a German-born Finnish composer, Fredrik
Pacius was an important figure in establishing
a Finnish musical identity in the second
half of the 19th century.
Premiered in Helsinki
in 1887 this last opera of his was greeted
with huge excitement, being considered
a major example of a home-grown Finnish
opera. What is specifically Finnish
about it I have no idea. There is a
folksy aspect to some of the music but
it sounds generically European to me.
The famous story, with its Rhine setting,
was popularised by German writers; the
libretto is in German and Pacius’s music
is firmly German-rooted. Such considerations
aside, there is a great deal to enjoy
in this work. The style may be conservative
for the period and there is nothing
innovative about it but Pacius is possessed
of easy melodic gifts as well as technical
skills in instrumental, choral and vocal
writing that present us with a considerable
range of colour and texture.
One thing he must be
credited with is musical courage. How
many composers would risk the challenge
of writing music for a young female
lead character who sings music of such
beauty that men are lured to their ruin?
Pacius meets the challenge head on.
Otto, committed to marry Bertha, goes
to see Lenore with whom he has become
recently besotted. It is the day of
the wedding. The scene is a rocky valley
by the Rhine and we first hear Lenore
off stage. "What a sound",
says Otto, "my soul melts on hearing
this voice". Pacius has her sing
unaccompanied and conjures a melody
of noble beauty. It is, musically and
dramatically, a most effective moment.
In fact it sums up one of Pacius’s main
strengths which is the telling realisation
of the passing moment. Another quite
different example is a beautiful, choral
rendering in the distance of Ave
Maria, worthy of one of Bruckner’s
settings of the same text. Bells toll
and Lenore’s voice floats in the foreground
in superimposition. Where things are
not so strong is in overall dramatic
tautness and larger-scale scene-building.
The end of the first of the two acts
ought to be a powerful culmination of
the whole story to that point. It is
set symbolically and conventionally
as a storm but somehow does not carry
the force the drama deserves.
For those who know
little or nothing of Pacius’s music,
what does it sound like? Well, probably
the most impolite thing you can do posthumously
to a little known composer is to indulge
in influence spotting. I know I shouldn’t
do it but will; justifying this on the
grounds that it might help to convey
to newcomers what the music is like.
For example, the overture starts slowly
with clear references to Wagner’s Tristan;
not surprising considering Pacius’s
visit to Germany in 1880 where he heard
Wagner and confessed to being behind
the times. But soon the overture reverts
to a style that betrays a much earlier
key influence: Weber’s Der Freischütz.
When the singing starts, in the
rocky Rhine valley, we are even more
conservatively in the pastoral domain
of Haydn’s The Seasons. Above
all there is the mentoring influence
of Louis Spohr, not much listened to
nowadays but once considered one of
the greatest of composers by many contemporaries.
Pacius was his pupil.
Lack of musical adventurousness
by no means disqualifies this work and
we probably have to thank the Lahti
Symphony Orchestra’s policy of aggressive
promotion of Finnish music for it seeing
the light of day in recording terms.
The opera was mounted with a largely
Finnish cast as a concert performance
in the Sibelius Hall in Lahti and this
recording was made there from performances
in May 2003. Osmo Vänskä appears
to have a firm grip on the score and
his orchestra does it great justice.
I will take the main
negative aspect of the performance first.
This is the tenor, Raimo Sirkiä
who sings Otto, the male lead. He does
not have the measure of the role, the
chief problem being his upper register.
After a while I could anticipate his
higher notes because I could sense him
gathering himself for a strangulated
launch. This sense of struggle has the
dramatic drawback of making him sound
past his prime and therefore old. It
may be that his voice was under par
at the time and a good gargle was in
order. Unfortunately, there are times
when he sounds as if he is resorting
to this remedy while singing – particularly
at Pacius’s more mellifluous melismas
(several notes to one syllable). Otto
eventually plunges himself to his death
in the Rhine – not soon enough in this
The negative is offset
by Soile Isokoski as Lenore, a distinguished
soprano who has a purity of voice that
sounds suitably youthful and she well
negotiates the role from innocent victim
to crazed avenger.
One thing that added
greatly to my pleasure was the recorded
sound quality. There is that combination
of clarity, and warm, spacious ambience
which in live performance is only to
be heard in the finest acoustical settings.
I assume this to be down to the wood
panelled Sibelius Hall which was designed
by experts. As Londoners know, employing
experts does not necessarily guarantee
a fine acoustic but in this case it
seems to have done the trick.
The CD booklet is well
presented complete with libretto although
I was irritated by the latter not being
cued: nor are the scene listings cross-referenced
with libretto page numbers.
due to the Lahti SO and all those involved,
in rescuing from oblivion a work that
never deserved such a fate.