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Oh Death, Here Are Thy Songs

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/25/2019 -  
Hector Berlioz: Tristia, Opus 18: 2. “La Mort d’Ophélie”
Claude Debussy: Nocturnes: 3. “Sirènes”
Jean Sibelius: Kullervo, Opus 7

Johanna Rusanen (Soprano), Takaoki Onishi (Baritone)
Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Men’s Chorus, David Rosenmeyer (Conductor), Oratorio Society of New York, Chorus and Orchestra of the Society, Kent Tritle (Conductor)

(Foreground) J. Rusanen, T. Onishi
(Background) Oratorio Society and Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Men’s Choir
(© Anna Yatskevich/Manhattan School of Music)

How dare the Oratorio Society spoil our Monday evening! On a day of rejoicing, as the National Creep flies out of our country, conductors Kent Tritle and David Rosenmeyer embrace us with a trio of malevolence and violence.

First the suicide of a Danish princess. Then an aggregation of rock-climbing women luring men to kill themselves. To top that off, the second half gives us a Finnish “hero” who rapes his sister, slaughters his family and his clan. Finally, when a Rowling-style Talking Sword tells him to murder himself, he utilizes that selfsame chatty weapon to kick the fatal bucket.

All three ancient stories spoke of death. And all three last night were (in contemporary parlance) drop-dead gorgeous.

The 80-odd minute Sibelius work was as rare in stunning beauty as in performance. Berlioz’ Death of Ophelia was written to show off for a mediocre actress with whom he was in love, but nothing was mediocre in the so-sensitive female voices who told the tale. Debussy’s Sirens did need the first two Nocturnes for completion. Yet again, this was a Debussy who attempted to musically escape the earth, and he almost succeeded.

The vocal performers of all three works were fluent, lyrical and–in the Sibelius–filled with unholy might. The Oratorio Society was not quite up to speed in Kullervo, possibly because such a massive group, without the transparency of, say, the Berlioz and Debussy, would be almost impossible to achieve. And the soloists? More on them later.

Beginning with the women of the Oratorio Society, Berlioz’s Death of Ophelia was a diaphanous start. Sibelius had a grudging respect for Berlioz’ orchestration (“A godly inspiration”, he said of the Symphonie fantastique), but only the most fervent Berlioz advocates (including this writer) praise his choral works above all.

Ophelia was initially written for soprano so the choral transformation is simple in harmony. But if one must accent major thirds for females, with a gauzy orchestra behind them, this was the way to go. The combination of freely-translated Shakespeare poetry, my imagined visual of Jean Simmons in the Olivier Hamlet, and the graceful elegance of the women here, under the baton of David Rosenmeyer, was a delight.

Debussy’s nocturnal Sirens was a greater challenge, a vocalise which rose up and down like the waves of La Mer, yet retaining the beauty which would entice Ulysses’ horny sailors. And again, the Oratorio Society women rose (and descended when necessary) to the test.

This was an idyllic first half. The second half, Sibelius’ “dramatic symphony” (I’ll use the Berlioz term) is virtually never performed. It needs a huge mens’ choir who can sing faultless Finnish. Not only because its syllabic structure cannot really be translated, but because, as a political gesture, Sibelius refused to use the official Swedish language. It needs two soloists who need even better Finnish pronunciation (the chorus words can quickly get lost), but need Wagnerian opera voices for their scene of rape.

Finally, Kullervo needs an orchestra of massive forces. Sibelius adored the still-living Bruckner, and he wrote for a a Gargantuan ensemble to make his Brucknerian point.

But Kullervo is no symphony of reverence and spiritual adoration. This is pagan stuff from the dawn of Finnish history. This has Sibelius rocking back and forth from major to minor, it has an opening theme which is as great as the climax of his Fifth Symphony, and which is resurrected at the end for the most stunning climax.

The Oratorio Society Orchestra, led by Kent Tritle, was not really lacking in its first two movements. Carried on by the rising three notes, it was urgent, it was extreme, feverish, gripping. The second movement, Kullervo’s Youth is not a piece of idyllic adolescence. The movement is marked Grave, and Mr. Tritle took that literally. Growing up must have been terrible for the legendary Kullervo, if this music is an indication of moaning and rocking back and forth in emotion. First the strings, then the woodwind, then the complete orchestra. The sounds were blurry at times, but the conductor kept the meter on an urgent pace.

So urgent that the central movement–where Kullervo tries to entice two girls into his sled, and finally settles on the third, who turns out to be his sister. For the actual procreation, Sibelius redacted the original words of the poem, and tried to give us a sexual orchestra. That didn’t work. The dour Finnish young man later had an addiction to drink, but methinks he didn’t have the sexual energy (musically speaking) of a Strauss or Wagner.

After this, though, the discovery of brother and sister, was sung with the mightiest tones of the evening. Finnish soprano Johanna Rusanen virtually spat out her first Finnish words, “At your sled, I spit, you villain, you scoundrel.” During the discovery they were siblings, she started softly and her paroxysms were held back.

Baritone Takaoki Onishi as the eponymous rapist virtually roared out his part, yet it was a most musical roar, the Finnish clear, the emotions exciting, his powerful monologue on his ancestry mesmeric.

One wishes the Kullero at War had been eliminated. Dramatically it was fine, but the orchestra played war like a scherzo, as he quite happily massacres his relatives and friends.

The finale of Kullervo, as played here, could have gone on forever. This was young Sibelius, and perhaps his orchestra was more streamlined as he grew older. But nowhere was he more muscular, nowhere did the dense harmonies have more impact, more skull beneath the skin.

As for the end repeating the first glorious theme, this should be a cliché. Sibelius, though, had such a monumental feel for great climaxes that some critics imagine Finland to be a country of mountains and rushing cascades. No, Finland is flat and forested and swampy. The young Sibelius had those majestic mountains and waterfalls in his mind. And the large ensembles here did him proud.

Harry Rolnick



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