Siren Call – Oramo, Sibelius Nielsen Glanert

Sinister mysteries of the sea and malevolence! Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a superlative programme: Sibelius Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22, with Carl Nielsen An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands and Detlev Glanert’s Megaris. inspired by ancient legend.  An atmospheric concert so rewarding that it deserves repeat listening – catch it HERE on BBC Radio 3.

This was the UK premiere of Glanert’s Megaris: Seestück mit Klage der toten Sirene (2014-15)  It’s a fascinating piece that takes as a starting point the legend that Partenope, the siren, washed up dead on the rocks at Megaris, once an island off the coast of Sicily, now part of the conurbation.  Sirens don’t exist, except in myth, but are powerful symbols. They’re also pagan. Yet Partenope’s relics are supposedly buried in a church on the fortress of Castel dell’Ovo on rocks which jut onto the sea.  Contradictions! Thus layers of myth and meaning, which Glanert incorporates into the complex, shifting textures of his music. Megaris is elusive, but seductive, like the sirens whose songs drove mortals to their deaths. Partenope died because she failed in her mission:  Odysseus escaped by blocking his ears. Partenope’s death is romantic and a lure for tourists. But bodies still wash up on shores all over the Mediterranean. Do we listen to their voices?   Far too often, audiences block out new music on principle, lest they be seduced and change, but Glanert’s Megaris is compelling.  

From offstage, hidden singers  (the BBC Singers) intone strange harmonies. the lines long, keening, stretching out into space. The orchestra responds. Timpani are beaten in solemn progression, high winds cry plaintively, flying over massed strings and massed choral voices, singing a wordless chorus of vowel sounds.  The pace quickens and the orchestra breaks into a flurry of dissonances, the percussion adding menace, the strings whipped into frenzy. Yet the voices won’t be silenced, singing short, sharp sounds, as if imitating the orchestral passage that went before. A strange stillness descends. the voices hum as do the strings: haunting, seamless abstract sound from which the voices materialize. led by the sopranos.  A subtle interplay of tonal colour. The voices then rise, singing short, urgent phrases and the orchestra flies back to life with complex cross-currents. O-A-O-E,, the voices sing, urgently. Another violent tutti, ending with a crash of cymbals before a mysterious stillness descends : silvery, circulating sounds lit by brass, the voices now whispering surreal chant.  The crash of a gong: then a solo soprano, calling wordlessly into the void.  Atmospheric, magical, beautiful, yet also unsettling.  Lots more on Glanert on this site, please explore. 

The four legends in Sibelius Lemminkäinen Suite describe the adventures of Lemminkäinen in the epic saga of the Kalevala. Oramo’s approach was fresh and lively, suggesting the young hero’s erotic vigour. The Kalevala isn’t prissy!  This highlighted the contrast between the hero and the Swan of  Tuonela, the mysterious symbol of the Island of the Dead.  Unlike other birds, a swan does not sing until it dies, so killing the swan implies some mystical rite. Lemminkäinen, like Parsifal, thinks he can kill a swan, but in the process is killed himself and brought back to life. The Lemminkäinen Suite is much more than programme music.  The swan’s “voice” is the cor anglais, solemn, mournful and seductive, perhaps not so different from a siren.  Beautiful playing from the BBC SO’s soloist.  In the final section, Lemminkäinen’s Return, Oramo brought out depth of meaning. The hero is restored, but he’s strong because he’s learned along the way. 

Oramo is emerging as a major interpreter of Carl Nielsen, having conducted a lot of Nielsen with the BBC SO in recent years. This performance of Nielsen’s  An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands (1927) was authoritative, and very individual.  The five sections in this piece form an arc, tone poem as miniature symphony, in a way. Oramo accentuated the contrast between movements which gives the piece such élan. The lugubrious undercurrents in the first section speed up as land approaches, quirky little flourishes from the winds suggesting sea birds on the coast.  This music has the feel of the seas, the orchestra surging as if propelled by powerful waves. Can we hear in the dances echoes of hardy Lutheran chorale? Nielsen had a wry sense of humour, as does Oramo. Perhaps that’s why they suit each other so well.  Bracing stuff !

Original Source: Siren Call – Oramo, Sibelius Nielsen Glanert

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