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Eduard TUBIN (1905-1982)
Barbara von Tisenhusen – opera in three acts and nine scenes ETW 112 (1967-68)
Helvi Raamat, Väino Puura, Ants Kollo, Hans Miilberg, Uno Kreen, Mare Jõgeva,
Tarmo Sild, Ivo Kuusk
Estonian National Opera Orchestra “Estonia”/Peeter Lilje
rec. Estonia, 1992. DDD
ONDINE ODE776-2D [62:01 + 32:39]

Where Tubin's name is recognised at all it is because of his work as a symphonist. After all there are two recorded cycles of the eleven symphonies: Järvi (BIS) and Volmer (Alba). Those recordings have done and continue to do stalwart service in putting Estonia and Tubin ‘on the map’. That said, we must not forget that in the Soviet 1950s and 1960s Järvi also recorded symphonies 2 and 6 and they have been reissued in all their rawness on a single Forte label CD (nla).
One of a pair of operas – the other being The Parson of Reigi (Reigi õpetaja) also recorded by Ondine and reissued by ArkivMusic - Barbara von Tisenhusen was written in the years between the Ninth and Tenth symphonies. It was staged in Tartu in 1969. The libretto is by Jaan Kross after a story by the Finnish author Aino Kallas (1878-1956). Kallas had a number of her novels set for the operatic stage and early on in the 1940s several were the subject of operas by the grievously overlooked Finnish composer Tauno Pylkkänen – dubbed the Finnish Puccini. The Tubin operas are much later but both are based on Kallas’s writings. Having fled to Sweden in the 1940s Tubin benefited from the gradual political thaw and returned to Estonia for occasional visits during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967 Arne Mikk, a producer of the National Opera Theatre "Estonia", invited Tubin to write an opera on Barbara von Tisenhusen. It was written quickly and was first performed at the National Opera Theatre in 1969 with the composer and his wife in attendance. It was a great success and was then performed more than fifty times in Estonia.
Barbara recounts the tragic story of the young Barbara von Tisenhusen, born in the Castle of Rannu, in Livland in 1533. She is the daughter of “the highly honoured and greatly feared nobleman Reinhold von Tisenhusen and his most virtuous wife Anna von Sawhere”.
This is vivacious music. Crudely speaking it is in the style of a Baltic Puccini out of Prokofiev which frankly is not how I would characterise his sombre and often strife-torn symphonies. The sense of movement here and of character vivacity is striking and makes an immediately engaging impression. The first scene of the first act (tr. 1) at times sounds like the attic scene-play from Bohème although that crashing ‘ratatat’ ending does recall the symphonies. After an unpromisingly glum fugal-academic entry the women's choral voices ring out bell-like, sounding like a sort of Carmina Kullervo. The second scene ends inventively with a discord pregnant with tension. Along the way we get an ecstatically exciting love duet between Tisenhusen and Jurgen. The Second Act conveys the impression of poison and rumour in music constantly in flight - irritable and tetchy and the impression grows of a Baltic Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia. Along the way we are ushered into sepulchral depths with the deep resonance of a tolling bell (tr. 5). A psychological overlay is always there - never mere illustration. The second disc begins with music that is gripping, pecked, jabbed and thumped out. The music takes on a flying motion with singing over the top redolent a little of the choral-orchestral Sibelius. Tubin's orchestral scoring in this opera is never drab and the microphone placement for this recording ensures that details are assertively captured. It ends in a well sustained glisteningly tense skein of sound with skeletal noises and macabre little trudging figures. It suggests to me an evocation of magical northern night skies. Inventive burnished tonal textures abound and glow with strange and tragic colours. A very satisfying opera. No wonder it is rated as Estonia’s best opera.
It's a shame that Ondine have had to delete this and the other Tubin opera The Parson of Reigi. However, it has been picked up by ArkivCD and is now available from them in their usual custom transfer now with booklet and original artwork.
I am pleased to report that this recording is available with, I believe, full notes and libretto with translation. I was working with a version lacking these details hence the absence of plot outline in this review.
Rob Barnett


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