Leah Broad: ‘Alternative Sibelius: Pia Freund and Ismo Eskelinen perform Sibelius’s songs’
A piece by 2015 Observer / Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism winner, Leah Broad.
Jean Sibelius occupies a conflicted position in music history. Born in 1865, he was of a generation defined by the radical new sounds of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Compared to Schoenberg’s dissonant soundscapes and the asymmetrical rhythms of The Rite of Spring, Sibelius’s more popular, tonal music appeared conservative, regressive, outdated. The music of his contemporaries seemed to be developing in directions that he could not follow. This obviously bothered Sibelius — he wrote to his friend Rosa Newmarch in 1930 that ‘There is so much in the music of the present day that I cannot accept.’ Instead of following the modern route, Sibelius cultivated a “national” sound, becoming the cultural figurehead for a newly independent Finland.
So the standard narrative goes. But is it the whole story? The image of Sibelius the conservative, “national” composer is one that is long overdue for reconsideration. Much of his music seems to sit uncomfortably with the nationalist label. To attempt such a reappraisal, however, requires delving deeper into the world in which Sibelius lived, and the music that he produced as a result. This is precisely what soprano Pia Freund and guitarist Ismo Eskelinen’s April recital at the Swedish Church in London attempted to do earlier this year. The concert formed part of the ‘Alternative Sibelius’ series, celebrating the composer’s 150th anniversary. Their programme avoided the vast symphonic works most associated with Sibelius. Instead, they focused on his songs and music for the theatre, placing these alongside music by John Dowland.
Sibelius’s theatre scores are amongst his most unknown material. Although he wrote seven full incidental scores (and one pantomime), these pieces are rarely heard today. This is partly due to the circumstances of their origin. Most of Sibelius’s music for theatre was integrally interwoven with the drama, accompanying on-stage action and speech. In effect, it worked a lot like film does music today. Without the plays that they were designed to work alongside, essential context for this music is lost in performance.
Freund and Eskelinen avoided this problem by performing the music Sibelius wrote for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. For this play, he composed only two short songs for voice and guitar, quite easily transplanted from their dramatic context. The first, ‘Come away death’, appears in Act 2 where the Duke Orsino asks his Fool to sing a song about “the innocence of love”. The second, ‘When that I was and a tiny little boy’, is entirely different in character and mood. This is the final song that closes the comedy, full of innuendo, and entirely characteristic of Shakespeare’s more bawdy offerings. After the cross-dressing mishap and other calamities throughout the play, this song draws together the loose threads as the couples are finally paired off — Orsino with Viola, and Olivia with Sebastian.
The mercurial change of mood between the two pieces was handled masterfully by Freund. Her lyrical tone was perfectly suited to the quiet lament of ‘Come away death’, emphasising the poignancy of Sibelius’s text setting. Her performance was characterised by a quiet stillness, astutely embodying the emotional and physical void that Shakespeare’s text portrays. Nonetheless this song could have benefitted from more attention to its dramatic delivery. It is a piece designed for the stage, but Freund’s rendition gave no indication of this. It was delivered in much the same style as the art songs that formed the majority of the programme.
This completely changed for ‘When that I was and a tiny little boy’. Exchanging wry, suggestive glances, both singer and guitarist threw themselves into capturing the ribald, cheeky humour of the song. They built up an affable dialogue that was as delightful to watch as it was to hear. Eskelinen gave Freund space to linger on ornaments, while she responded to his heavy offbeat accents with a comically pious demeanour.
This music represents Sibelius at his most “modern”. It may not be the type of modernity that Schoenberg and Stravinsky represented, but Sibelius’s theatre music places him at the centre of an artistic avant-garde. Shakespeare was often seen on Scandinavian stages at the turn of the century, considered to be the ultimate “modern” playwright. Progressive directors like Max Reinhardt and Per Lindberg produced radical interpretations of his plays, attempting to hone in on the intense psychological ferment of dramas like King Lear and Otello. Meanwhile, the leading critic and philosopher Georg Brandes wrote a book about Shakespeare and his importance to the development of modern theatre. It is this culture that Sibelius was participating in when he chose to compose music for the Swedish Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night (and, later, for the 1926 Copenhagen production of The Tempest).
It was a peculiar choice to insert songs by John Dowland into the programme. Granted, at the turn of the century there was a particular interest in this period of English history — one only has to think of Vaughan-Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Greensleeves or Thomas Tallis. As one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, it was illuminating to imagine how Dowland might have set a song like ‘Come away death’ in the seventeenth century, compared to Sibelius’s interpretation. But considered in their own right rather than as inclusions for historical interest, the Dowland songs were unfortunately some of the weakest moments in the concert. Although Eskelinen’s rendition of the ‘Lachrimae pavan’ provided a pleasant interlude, Freund’s voice seemed much better suited to the more recent repertoire. At times she overpowered the delicate melancholy of Dowland’s music, the songs seeming to have been included more for Eskelinen’s benefit than anything else.
The eight Lieder that comprised the body of the programme, however, allowed Freund to flourish. Her powerful voice filled the resonant acoustic of the Swedish Church, with her linguistic dexterity showcased by songs in Finnish, Swedish, and German. Alongside the Shakespeare music, these songs presented a distinctly cosmopolitan Sibelius, a far cry from his image as a national composer.
The song ‘Lasse liten’ (‘Little Lasse’) is a case in point. The text is by Zacharius Topelius, a Finnish author largely associated with the Finnish nationalist movement. On the surface, then, this appears to be evidence in support of Sibelius the romantic nationalist. But Sibelius’s setting completely undercuts the sentiment of the text. It is transformed from nostalgic reminiscence to something altogether more critical. The bass rumble that opens the song is ominous, perhaps representing the fears that drive little Lasse back to his home. There is no idealised notion of home or nation here.
With unforgiving determination, Freund’s interpretation teased out the tension between the text and the music. In the discomforting silences that punctuate the entire piece, she always allowed the sound to dissipate fully before continuing. In such a resonant acoustic this created deliciously extended pauses, creating lacunae in the text that nothing stepped in to fill. They became defiant shards of shrapnel in the body of the text, fragmenting the song’s surface. My only reservation was the arrangement. In transposing the accompaniment for guitar it lost some of its grating quality. When missing the deep bass register available to the piano, the tone was far more lyrical than is really needed to bring out the bitter modernity of Sibelius’s setting. The same partly applied to the solo piano pieces Humoresque and Pensée mélodique, which were also transposed for guitar. Timbre and texture are vital to Sibelius’s compositional style, so much is lost in translation when works are transposed.
Anniversary concerts are always a potential hazard. They run the risk of becoming a platform for repeated renditions of already popular repertoire. And certainly, the anniversary has spawned a plethora of such concerts. Sibelius’s symphonies have dominated programmes this year, from the Proms to the Royal Festival Hall. At their best, however, anniversaries provide the opportunity to shed new and unexpected light on a composer and their world. This recital fell squarely into this bracket. Despite a few oversights as a result of tailoring the concert to suit the guitar, this was one of the most insightful and exciting of this year’s anniversary concerts.
Unearthing Sibelius’s lesser known works, particularly his theatre music, offers a new perspective on how we think about this period of music history. After taking this repertoire into account, Sibelius’s position doesn’t seem quite so conflicted. He did not adopt a conservative stance in the face of Schoenberg and others. He just thought about modernity differently to his contemporaries. Rather than focusing on increased dissonance, Sibelius turned to theatre and literature to create what he considered to be progressive music. How many other ideas about modernity are being forgotten by our current narratives? By the time of Sibelius’s next anniversary, perhaps this music will no longer be billed as ‘Alternative Sibelius’. Instead, it could hold a central position alongside his symphonic music to create a more multi-faceted and nuanced view of this enigmatic and complex composer.