At the BBC Proms, Lise Davidsen stole the show with a spectacular Sibelius Luonnotar. op 17 (1913). Luonnotar is a life force exploding with such intensity that its spirit seemed to spring from the depths of Sibelius's soul, materializing in his score. At the time it was written, 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 written for, and premiered by the great Finnish soprano Aino Ackté. 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. Schwarzkopf had guts: until then, most sopranos steered clear of this piece unless they were Finnish (a beautiful language, but tricky to sing) and weren't bothered about the strikingly modern savagery in the part.
Lise Davidsen's Luonnotar was mightily impressive. Her voice is magnificent, floating the strange modulations in the line with well-judged poise, projecting the keening forward lines so they seek out the furthest corners of space. Voice as tsunami ! Her Luonnotar is very, very strong, for Luonnotar is the mother of creation itself, forged from struggle. Davidsen is only 30, so she still has a way to go, but she could well be one of the really great voices of our time, a worthy successor to Söderström, Isokoski and Mattila. Recently she astonished audiences at Glyndebourne with her Ariadne : definitely a singer to watch.
Luonnotar is 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.
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's 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.
Prior to that stunning Luonnotar, John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestara in the suite from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt (of which I've written HERE) and HERE where Davidsen sang Solveig's Song. Under Storgårds, the BBCPO sounds thrillingly alive. In Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor op 129, their support for soloist Alban Gerhardt was superb, almost palpable, as if in symbiosis. To conclude, Paul Hindemith Symphony "Mathis der Maler". A garagantuan programme, pretty hard to pull off by any standards. I could write volumes but I'm all wrung out.