Northern Lights

    // St Mary's Bryanston Square, London W1

    Linking music from four countries of the Baltic: Finland, Estonia, Russia and Denmark

Sibelius: Rakastava
Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
Per Nørgård: Wie ein Kind
Rachmaninov: Panteley the Healer
Veljo Tormis: Karelian Destiny

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This concert links music from four countries of the Baltic: Finland, Estonia, Russia and Denmark. Two works are classic, late romantic part songs: the other three come from very different composers all born in the 1930’s, each with their own radical aesthetic, yet drawing on traditions from deep in the Western tradition. We hope you uncover some hidden links between these five widely differing works, and enjoy this evening’s concert!

Jean Sibelius: Rakastava Op. l4 Sibelius’ importance as a national icon in Finnish music stems from far more than his cycle of seven symphonies. Listeners to the early choral symphony Kullervo (1892) will know that Sibelius was steeped in the culture of the traditional Finnish epic, the Kalevala, and had created, originally for male chorus, a new world of Finnish declamation in choral singing, quite different from the more traditional models of Germanic or Scandinavian settings of his contemporaries.

Rakastava, or The Lover, first saw the light of day as a male voice chorus before Sibelius adapted it for mixed voices in 1898 (it was later to have a further incarnation, as a string orchestra piece, in 1911). The tale is taken from the Finnish book of traditional verse, Kanteletar, and tells a simple tale of love found and, inevitably, lost. Particularly striking is the opening narrative and subsequent A major lyrical section, with its almost minimalist Ei-la refrain hauntingly evoking nostalgic memories of the beloved amidst the beauties of nature. The final section, with the two lovers symbolised by bass and soprano soloists, is one of Sibelius’ most deeply touching evocations. MCG

Arvo Pärt: Magnificat It is now nearly a quarter of a century since the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt began to form the extraordinary synthesis of minimalist simplicity and spirituality for which he is now best known. The Magnificat, written in 1989 when the composer was living in Berlin, post-dates such large-scale works as the St. John Passion and Stabat Mater which, in the mid-1980’s, began to make Pärt a cult figure with their reincorporation of medieval techniques and tonic scales within a radically simplified contemporary idiom. Pärt’s setting of the ancient text is unusual in its joylessness, yet striking for its beauty, compression and apparent timelessness. MCG

Per Nørgård: Wie ein Kind Adolph Wolfli (author of the text of the two outer movements of Wie ein Kind) was born in 1864 in Switzerland. His parents were very poor (his father was a drunkard who would spend his earnings in the local inns) and the five children who survived early childhood (Adolph and his brothers) were in fact brought up in parish child care. The unhappiness of his youth – he was lonely, poor, and an abomination to the fathers of any girls he might fall in love with – came to its sad climax when he was caught in a (vain) attempt at sexual crime. From 1895 until his death in 1930, Wolfli was detained at Waldau, an asylum for the mentally disturbed. He developed here a unique artistic ability, the intensity of which has impressed an increasing number of people. He drew, wrote and decorated more than 20,000 pages, many of them of considerable size. As early as 1921, Waiter Morgenthaler (psychiatrist and doctor, tending Wolfli the patient) published the volume “Ein Geisteskranker als Kunstler” (A Lunatic as an Artist) dealing with the paintings and writings of Wolfli, and Rainer Maria Rilke, the eminent poet, was deeply moved by the quality of Wolfli’s works thus published.

In the present work the composer aims at a confrontation of two poetic expressions: one rising from the tormented soul of a schizophrenic, the other being that of a highly respected and famous poet. The Lullaby (Wiigen-Lied, in Wolfli’s typically sensual spelling) has many psychological aspects, and it is punctuated by a strange, distant call, reminiscent of those of a street vendor or a mother calling from way up in a tower block to her child way down in a narrow courtyard. Spring Song (“Fruhlingslied”) is the song of the happy child – the child in vital harmony, open, playful, sensually aware. Funeral March with Attendant Minor Accident (Trauermarsch mit einem Unglucksfall) repeats the musical themes of the Lullaby, but a male soloist, who does his best to sing after the fashion of his fellow singers, suffers some embarrassing frustrations. Per Nørgård

Sergei Rachmaninov: Panteley the Healer In 1897, the failure of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, on top of a disastrous youth and a series of unhappy infatuations caused an almost complete creative silence for over two years. Finally, the controversial hypnotist Dr. Nicolai Dahl helped the composer to overcome his depression. In gratitude, Rachmaninov dedicated to Dahl his Piano Concerto No.2, yet the choice of Tolstoy’s text for his acappella chorus Panteley the Healer seems even more apposite. Although the work is dated May 4th 1901, the exact period of composition for the piece remains unclear. It is a striking example however, more than a decade before the famous Vespers, of Rachmaninov’s natural feel for choral forces. Harmonial/MCG

Yeijo Tormis: Karelian Destiny The Estonian composer Yeijo Tormis (born 1930) studied at the Moscow Conservatoire. Graduating in 1956, he worked as a teacher of composition and music theory at the Tallinn College of Music, and as consultant for the Estonian Composers Union. He has been a full-time, freelance composer since 1969.

Tormis is first and foremost a composer of vocal and choral music. His choral works often expand to take on symphonic proportions, making imaginative and varied use of tone colours.

Tormis often takes his ideas from folk music, but also from the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg and Finno-Ugric folk poetry. He often makes use not just of the poetry but also the whole folk song, retaining its original form and using the melody line as the basis for the musical structure. His adoption of folk song material took on a more structured form in the major song-cycle Eesti kalendriaulud (Estonian Calendar Songs), composed in 1987 as comprising five smaller cycles built around 29 songs in all. This has been followed by the six part choral cycle Unustalud rahvad (Forgotten Peoples, 1970-1989). In these works he has attempted to preserve the songs of some of the Balto-Finnic peoples whose cultural heritage was on the verge of extinction. Karelian Destiny is the sixth and last work in the cycle.

Karelian Destiny comprises five runic songs, set for mixed voice choir, originating from a region bordered by Finland on the west and the Russian Federation to the cast.

  • Weeping Maiden (1) is a beguiling song (andante) in three stanzas. The maiden is weeping to the rocks and to the cliffs, looking down she sees her father in a boat and asks him to take her with him. “No” he replies, he’s taking the boat to Finland. Only in the final stanza does she find a true love who will take her on board his boat.
  • Suitors from the Sea (2) tells how a maiden sits near the sea, awaiting the arrival of a husband. By turns, suitors appear out of the sea, one clad in iron, another in copper, a third in silver, a fourth in gold. Only with the appearance of the fifth suitor, who is clothed in corn does the maiden give her heart.
  • A Serf in Viru (3) is a narrative tale about a poor serf who is ill-treated by his master and dies from cold and starvation. In the other world the serf finds all the comforts which his master had known, whereas the master now finds only hellish torments.
  • The Oak Cutter (4) is a more complex, darkly ambiguous folk tale about a man who will rise from the sea to fell a mighty oak tree containing apples bearing golden balls.
  • Lullaby (5), the final folk song, is about a mother rocking the cradle containing her dead child. The closing stanzas of the song, whilst embracing elements of hope and regeneration, also contains a note of protest at the child’s cruel fate. Merike Vaitmaalphilip Taylorl/MCG