Sunday, 9 January 2011

Sibelius Luonnotar - creating the Universe

This is the most stunning Sibelius Luonnotar I've ever seen. The performance, by Karita Mattila, is exceptionally clear and forceful.  Just listen to the piercing legato, projected so the voice could carry over thousands of miles, across even time and space.  What makes this clip, too, is the video. Whoever made it knows what Luonnotar means and why she's the central figure in the Kalevala.

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. He was approaching uncharted waters and the prospect was daunting. As 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 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 listening to 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 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 "swimmer's 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  in the Kalevala, 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. One of the things that fascinates me about Sibelius is the way he envisions remarkable new territory, yet pulls back as if overwhelmed by the force of what lies ahead. One day, maybe I'll writre about the Eighth Symphony and why he might havce withdrawn it at a late stage.

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". There is a clip of this performance but sound quality is poor, especially in comparison with Mattila. Schwarzkopf had guts: until then, most sopranos steered clear of this piece unless they were Finnish and weren't bothered about the savagery in the part. Later it almost became popular, though most of the early recordings until Söderström are unexceptional.

Soile Isokoski and Karita Mattila have both made it a keynote in their repertoires. Isokoski sang it dozens of times, but her best official recording (Neemi Jarvi NOT Paavo) isn't up to some of her live performances. I'm not quite sure which recording this Mattila version is but the orchestra is not in her league. I'd venture it must be CBSO with Sakari Oramo, who is a close personal friend of Mattila. Still, for that singing, one can compromise!


jade said...

Fascinating--the music, the myth, and your narrative!

Wahaha, classical music for jogging. (To me,Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" goes pretty well with aerobics and Tai Chi.:))

Kevin said...

Wow! Yet another fantastic piece that somehow slipped through the cracks. Muchas gracias for bringing this to my attention, for the Youtube, and for the excellent background work.

Vecchio John said...

ENO brilliantly staged this piece a few seasons ago in a seamless paring with VW's Riders to the Sea. Much the best production there for many many years.

I retain the image of Susan Gritton suspended high above the stage in a boat against a shifting video background.

Doundou Tchil said...

Hello John. I saw that too and wished that I had not known the music beforehand! (GRIN)