INKPOT#55 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: TOBIAS Des Jona Sendung. Various/Jrvi (BIS)
RUDOLF TOBIAS (1873-1918)
Des Jona Sendung
Oratorio in 3 Parts. Restored and arranged by Vardo RumessenPille Lill soprano Urve Tauts mezzo-soprano
Peter Svensson tenor Raimo Laukka baritone
Ines Maidre organ
Oratorio Choir Tallinn Boys Choir Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian State Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Neeme Järvi
2 discs [47’34″+66’39”] full-price
by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase
I suspect that deep inside every musician, whether composer, performer, musicologist, or simply a collector, there exists a desire to express oneself with an oratorio. In this form, one utters words one believes in, and sends it into the world through the power of music.
The Estonian composer Rudolf Tobias was born in 1873 (same year as Rachmaninov, or eight years after Sibelius) and died in 1918 (seven years after Mahler’s death). He was trained as an organist, took composition lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov, and was also involved in choral music as well as the advance of Estonian culture. Tobias’ compositions were apparently the first from Estonia to reach European ears. Unfortunately, his name is still missing from most music dictionaries.
As early as 1904, Tobias (right) began work on the oratorio Des Jona Sendung, which was completed in 1909. So what’s the music like? You might imagine something akin to Mahler’s choral symphonies… Well, there are tiny traces of that: one of the choruses is even named “Chorus Mysticus” (after Goethe’s Faust naturally). If you look at the title subject, “Jonas’ Mission” you might start looking back much further and think of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, another Old Testament figure.
Des Jona Sendung is undeniably core Romantic music, possessing much of the Germanic sweep and momentum you hear in Mendelssohn’s Elijah. In fact, it is sung in German. Although it was written so relatively recently, it demonstrates no modernistic tendencies. Indeed, if you expect any kind of Sibelian/Debussyian tone-painting, you’re going to be disappointed. The work is clearly meant as a musical expression of the emotionalism of its text, and not its visual qualities. In other words: Romantic. And quite a fine piece of Romanticism!
The influence of Rimsky is only occasionally heard (or perhaps he is reserving them for the best bits) in the form of percussion (but only a conservative selection) and other titbits of orchestral colour. The opening chorus of Scene IV (No.25), for example, has some touches of colour that remind me of Scheherezade. Here the festive percussion is evidently meant to represent “pagan wildness”. This begins to bring the work closer to Mahler’s and Wagner’s – some of the most evocative and beautiful moments are the quiet ones, softly shimmering with anticipation, or embellished by harp. The scholarly, passionately “biased” and full notes provided by Vardo Rumessen explain and quote Tobias’ leitmotiv-ic construction of the work (13 notated examples are even included).
Tobias’ sense of drama is tightly driven and the pacing of his musical narrative balanced. In fact, the impression that I can’t shake off is that if Des Jona Sendung is modelled after Elijah, Tobias’ product is actually better than Mendelssohn’s! The work is scored for a Mahlerian group of five soloists, two mixed choirs, a children’s choir, a very large orchestra and organ, the last heard satisfyingly often to great effect.
The story of “Jonah’s Mission” is the Old Testament tale of Jonah fleeing from the city of sinful Nineveh, being cast overboard on his sea journey to calm the waves, being swallowed by the “great fish”, and eventually being saved by God’s mercy. Tobias’ use of the Biblical subject is actually quite free – interwoven in the plot (which I think is secondary) is the idea of the struggle of the suppressed nation (Estonia/Israel) against the “big bully” oppressor (Nineveh/Germany).
The choruses are probably the best bits of the oratorio. Their choral stories include those of the Tempest (Nos. 5-7), beseeching help from God, followed by the Mahlerian thanksgiving chorus (No.8), and in similar vein the great final fugue-chorus of Part I (No.16). Part II begins with a militant “Psalm of Vengeance” for altos and children’s chorus. All this is smashing orchestral-choral writing of a very high calibre.
The Chorus Mysticus is naturally at home singing the serene and “heavenly” texts. It tells forlornly of Jonah’s “three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish”, mankind’s longing for redemption, or heralds the coming of God and his angels. Witness the gigantic Sanctus of the oratorio for all the choruses, soloists and tutti orchestra, cymbals, drums, gongs, etc. This represents the appearance of God, and marks the centre of the entire oratorio (No.19 of 38) – and I must say the writing is exceedingly grand!
Next to the impressive range of choruses, the solo parts are actually pretty nondescript. They sometimes sound like loosened recitatives rather than full-blown melodic arias (most of the big melodies are given to the choruses). Jonah is cast for baritone, and the other soloists sing mostly generic roles similar to those in Handel’s Messiah – unnamed individuals singing Biblical lines. My impression is that the solo parts are often best when heard singing with the choruses, and these combined pieces occur very often. As if to complement this, the soloists on this recording aren’t particularly characterized, singing with a rather universalized, “nobody” kind of tone. In other words, they are most effective when merged with the orchestra and choirs.
And not surprisingly, but still magnificently, the 9-minute “Final Chorus” is a splendid affair. It is largely peacefully pastoral, very contented and angelic, with a beautiful section in the middle for the soloists (think Beethoven’s Ninth). Towards the end, with a wonderously sumptious surge of volume, all enter to hymn the final “Amen”. The drums roll, the organ swells, the orchestra lifts, the choirs hold the word high as soloists add their shining vibrato to the long majestic swell.
Through the years, Neeme Järvi has always impressed me with his magical way with final chords – his crescendo swells are some of the most natural and musically satisfying I’ve ever heard. And so it is here. With the fine BIS sound (better for choruses), the Estonian performers here play with obvious pride for their home music – achieving a landmark recording that I’m pretty sure does the composer (who fouled up the premiere by his own hand) well-deserved justice.
213: 14.6.98; up.25.3.1999 Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase