INKPOT#64 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SIBELIUS Everyman. Belshazzar’s Feast. The Countess’s Portrait (BIS)
Everyman, Op.83 (Jokamies, 1916) Incidental Music to the play by Hugo von HofmannsthalBelshazzar’s Feast, op.51 (Belsazars gstabud, 1906) Incidental music to the play by Hjalmar Procop. Original theatre version.
The Countess Portrait
(Grevinnans konterfej, 1906)
Lilli Paasikivi mezzo-soprano Petri Lehto tenor
Sauli Tiilikainen baritone
Pauli Pietilinen organ Leena Saarenp piano
Lahti Chamber Choir Lahti Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä
All world-premire recordings. Includes vocal texts in Finnish and English.
BIS-CD-735 (Complete Sibelius Edition Vol.36)
by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase
The medieval morality play Everyman is one of the most famous of its kind. As is characteristic of these dramas, the characters are abstract concepts – Everyman represents, quite literally, each and every one of us, while other allegorical characters he interacts with symbolise his life and living. In 1911, Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) wrote a new version of this tale, and the Finnish National Theatre commisioned Sibelius for the music.
The story of Everyman teaches the temporality of earthly living and materialism. Everyman lives a carefree, materialistic life, refusing to help the needy. Angered, God sends Death to claim Everyman. At his otherwise happy banquet, Everyman tries to avoid the approach of doom by encouraging his friends, relatives and guests to sing and dance. But soon, Death appears to fetch Everyman, but allows him to find someone to accompany him. His friends and relatives all refuse, and Everyman decides to take along his treasure chest. But when the chest opens, the evil Mammon appears inside – but even he refuses to follow Everyman.
Dejected, Everyman laments on the loneliness that wealth has finally given him, but just then, Good Deeds (or Works, according to BIS’s notes) appears in the shape of a sickly woman, and offers to accompany him on the dreadful journey. She tells him, however, that she is too ill to defend him before God, and suggests that Everyman ask the help of her sister, Faith. With Good Deeds and Faith, Everyman purges his soul and sets off on his journey. Along the way, the Devil attempts to disrupt them, but the sisters and even the Angels defend Everyman – who eventually reaches the radiant fields of heaven.
Take for example, the epic quality of the opening prologue, with its opening organ-like booming of solemn brass chords, rolling timpani and warning bells – Prologue appears on stage to warn the audience to take heed of the tale. Or the concentrated 10-minute stretch of mysterious darkness comprising item No.11 (marked “Largo, sempre misterioso”), accompanying a dialogue between Everyman and Good Deeds. Just hushed strings and rumbling timpani, this is without doubt the product of Sibelius as consummate symphonist. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra draws a pale haze of sound from the score, in a seamless weave of quiet, unbroken lines.
Of the 16 numbers in the score, not all are dark. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable pieces is the banquet scene’s Dance Song (No.4) “Me kutsun saimme ystvn luo” (“A friend has invited us here”). Here, to Sibelius’ characteristic wind hymns, the strings pizzicato lightly, providing a heavenly ripple of harmony above the solo voices singing a dancing tune, with choral refrains in Aeolian minor. The luscious, quiet beauty of the music evokes a scene of gentle rejoicing – if only I could see the production!
Next to this mortal merriment is the noble serenity of Faith and Good Deeds. Whenever they appear, the sisters grace the score with music of soothing strength, as when Faith manifests (No.12) in aid of Everyman – I guess the word to describe this music is Marian.
An organ ascends to declare the purification of Everyman’s soul. This music would easily fit into a sacred setting, so in-tune is the writing (so Bach-like… I think) with the atmosphere of a religious ceremony. Then, the scene darkens. The strings groan ghostly as the Devil attempts to thwart Everyman’s journey. Suddenly, when one least expects it, Sibelius – master of modulation – shifts the key towards light. Bells peal briefly to signal the nearness of the journey’s end. The Devil gives up and leaves.
Lento. In No.15, ever so quietly but always full of suspense, Everyman steps into his grave with Good Deeds. Death follows behind. The organ, almost inaudible, breathes as the bells again sound in the distance… “Gloria in excelsis Deo” – sings the choir as Everyman ascends to Heaven. No, there is no Romanticisation here – Sibelius preserves the dark majesty that makes this music unmistakably 20th century. There is even a curious rambling section for the male choir that sounds eerie to the core. The wheel has come full circle and Sibelius repeats material from the opening music. Death returns Everyman to God.
Everyman was premiered on 5th November 1916. The stage, it is said, was nearly completely black. Critics praised the music, saying the play would have been weak without it. For a performance in 1935, at the composer’s 70th birthday, Sibelius asked that the audience should not applaud at the end to preserve the solemn atmosphere. Listening to this world-premiere recording here, I cannot agree more.
by Caspar David Friedrich.
The story is based on the feast of Belshazzar in Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel. It depicts the events surrounding the prophecy that King Belshazzar of Babylon will be killed by the Jewish girl Leschanah. In the play, Leschanah (whom Belshazzar in fact falls in love with) and Khadra (a court dancer who competes with her for the King’s attention) are the key characters, whose jealousy and competition propels the plot towards Belshazzar’s death.
The scoring for solo flute, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle) and strings is deceptive. This is immediate from the opening piece, the Alla marcia (Moderato), which was renamed the “Oriental Procession” in the suite. If you ever buy this disc, try this on your friends: tell them it’s by Rimsky-Korsakov – they wouldn’t doubt you. The crescendo-diminuendo effect is familiar from the “Intermezzo” from Karelia. But the “Turkish” atmosphere of booming bass drum and rattling tambourine, the minor key swirling woodwind, the sinuous string quivers and the lurid brass wowwing is totally unlike Sibelius!
This is followed by the “Prlude: Notturno”, which has been given a place in the Suite as “Solitude”. Immediately invoking a quiet cold night, a solo flute sings forlornly over a starfield of strings. Anyone who has gone out in the cold night to watch the stars swim the celestial seas will identify with this music.
This is followed by the beautiful “Den judiska flickans sng” (The Jewish Girl’s Song), sung by the homesick Leschanah yearning for Jerusalem. In the calm voice of mezzo Lilli Paasikivi, this is easily the most heavenly invocation on this disc. Sibelius orchestrated the aria as “Nocturne”, giving it due honour in the Suite.
The rest of the score comprises mainly the charming “Lifvets dans” (Dance of Life) for flute and clarinet solo; and the threatening “Ddens dans” (Dance of Death), with clarinet at the lowest register, winding about to depict the cobra which poisons Khadra. All this is to accompany her final dances, for Leschanah has forced Belshazzar to condemn Khadra to death. These two dances were combined to form the final movement of the Suite, entitled “Khadra’s Dance”.
The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase is delighted to discover that he is something of an allegory as well.
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