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Fredrick PACIUS (1809-1891)
Die Loreley - Opera in two acts
Libretto: Emanuel Geibel
Soile Isokoski, soprano (Lenore)
Raimo Sirkiä, tenor (Otto)
Cornelius Hauptmann, bass (Hubert)
Riikka Rantanen, mezzo-soprano (Bertha)
Topi Lehtipuu, tenor (Reinald)
Arttu Kataja, bass (Leopold)
Dominante Choir/Seppo Murto
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Recorded Lahti, Finland, May 2003
BIS BIS-CD-1393/1394 [2CDs: 70.47 + 55.23]

 

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 case.

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.

Congratulations are due to the Lahti SO and all those involved, in rescuing from oblivion a work that never deserved such a fate.

John Leeman



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