Wednesday 8 January 2014

Much to really enjoy on a new release from BIS of Sibelius’ Masonic Ritual Music including an orchestrated version by Jaakko Kuusisto

It is well known that little appeared from Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) after producing his Seventh Symphony, Op.105 (1924) and Tapiola, Op.112 (1925).  There was the incidental music to The Tempest, Op.109 (1926), his Five Equisses for piano Op.114 (1929) and his Three Pieces for violin and piano Op.116 (1929) but nothing large scale, except, tantalisingly, a large orchestral and a large choral score that appear to have been consigned to the flames by the composer.

It is, then, particularly interesting to hear what Sibelius was producing after Tapiola, an opportunity given to us by BIS Records  with their new release of Sibelius’ Musique Religieuse (Masonic Ritual Music) for tenor, male voice choir and organ, Op.113 and Musique Religieuse (Masonic Ritual Music) for tenor and orchestra, Op.113 (arr. Jaakko Kuusisto, 2007).

In 1922, a new Masonic lodge was founded in Finland. Sibelius was amongst the first to join and even became organist at the lodge. His Musique Religieuse (Masonic Ritual Music) for tenor, male voice choir and organ, Op.113 was first performed there in 1927. Sibelius added to these songs or hymns in 1938 and 1948 and it is the pieces from 1927, 1938 and 1948 that are performed on this new recording featuring Hannu Jurma (tenor), the YL Male Voice Choir and Harri Viitanen (organ).

BIS CD 1977
The opening organ piece, Avaushymni (Opening Hymn) E flat major, 1927, is very hymn like but with a Sibelian melodic shape, a stately theme that has varied repeats. Avaushymni (Opening Hymn) G major, 1948 is a variation of the original 1927 organ hymn. Tenor, Hannu Jurma, joins the organ for Alttarin valmistus: Suloinen aate (Adjusting the Altar: Thought Be Our Comfort), 1927 in this direct and somewhat austere piece. Jurma is excellent, full voiced with lovely textures. Alttarin valmistus: Suloinen aate is then repeated on the organ, quietly, distantly and thoughtfully working over the melody and finely played by Harri Viitanen.

There are lighter textures from the organ in I° Kulkue ja hymni (First Degree, Procession and Hymn), 1927, though still maintaining the slightly austere, distanced feel. Hannu Jurma, joins for the direct and simple hymn Näätkö, kuinka hennon yrti with a direct and austere feel, enhanced by the Finnish language text. The gently rising theme of Ylistyshymni (Hymn), 1946, rev. 1948 is most effective as the tenor and organ build the music in power, more Sibelian in flavour with its dramatic statement. The YL Male Voice Choir joins when least expected and to great effect. The hymn concludes with broad, powerful organ chords.

II° Kulkue ja hymni (Second Degree, Procession and Hymn), 1927 has a light and airy, simple happy melody for organ only, that brings much contrast. The tenor joins for the hymn Kellä kaipuu rinnassansa which is, likewise, a lighter, more joyful piece, with some lovely Sibelian inflections. A terrific little piece. The choir join the organ for Veljesvirsi (Ode to Fraternity),1946, another direct and hymn like piece, showing how affectively Sibelius could write simple and direct music for congregational use. Here the YL Male Voice Choir brings much style and precision to their singing.

In III° Kulkue ja hymni (Third Degree, Procession and Hymn), 1927 the organ has an attractive little tune before the pleading hymn Ken kyynelin (Who Ne’er Hath Blent His Bread with Tears) with Hannu Jurma bringing just the right degree of emotion. The organ enters in a slow stately Surumarssi (March Funèbre),1927, with Sibelius giving some lovely subtle harmonies to the music. With a distinctively Sibelian melody and a duration of just under just six minutes, this is one of the most substantial pieces.

Tenor and organ give another direct hymn, Salem (Onward, Ye Brethren), 1927, but such are the Sibelian intervals that they make for an interesting piece. Hannu Jurma adds much with his rich voice. Choir and organ come together for Suur’ olet, Herra (Ode),1927, a piece that has much of the nature of Veljesvirsi, direct and simple and congregational. On kaunis maa (How Fair Are Earth and Living), 1927, rev. 1948 brings tenor and organ in this gentle piece, where Hannu Jurmu lends a lovely sense of appealing ardour.

This work concludes with Finlandia-hymni (Finlandia Hymn), 1899, arr. 1938 where the choir alone enter in Sibelius’ arrangement of his 1899 Finlandia. Who could fail to enjoy this terrific final piece?

Sibelius sadly never provided an orchestral version of his Musique Religieuse (Masonic Ritual Music), however, in 2007 the conductor on this disc, Jaakko Kuusisto , arranged the work for tenor and orchestra at the request of the Masons for a special celebration concert at Sibelius Hall in Lahti. In this performance, Jaakko Kuusisto conducts the Lahti Symphony Orchestra  with Mika Pohjonen (tenor)  and Pauli Pietiläinen playing the Grönlund Organ of the Sibelius Hall, Lahti

Avaushymni (Opening Hymn), in Kuusisto’s orchestration, reveals a more reflective, nostalgic feel to the music whereas with Alttarin valmistus: Suloinen aate (Adjusting the Altar: Thought Be Our Comfort) he keeps the orchestra spare in the opening with brass prominent. Tenor, Mika Pohjonen, brings an operatic tone, full of feeling. The orchestra opens I° Kulkue ja hymni: Näätkö, kuinka hennon yrti (First Degree, Procession and Hymn: Though Young Leaves Be Green) before the tenor joins as the hymn rises up with organ and orchestral accompaniment before an orchestral conclusion. Tenor and orchestra open Ylistyshymni (Hymn) with restrained drama as the music slowly rises upwards to a grand orchestral climax. Tenor, Mika Pohjonen is exceptionally fine, full and firm of voice, controlled in the subtle moments as the music falls to a quiet coda that nevertheless ends with brass and organ sounding out.

The light and happy II°. Kellä kaipuu rinnassansa (Second Degree: Whosoever Hath a Love) has a pastoral feel, brought out by the orchestration. With Veljesvirsi (Ode to Fraternity) this hymn like piece, for tenor and organ, becomes closer to an aria in this orchestrated version. Certainly, perhaps Mika Pohjonen’s fine tenor voice adds to the operatic feel. The orchestral version of the Procession adds much to the lovely little tune in III° Kulkue ja hymni: Ken kyynelin (Third Degree, Procession and Hymn: Who Ne’er Hath Blent His Bread with Tears) before the tenor enters without a break bringing much feeling to the hymn Ken kyynelin (Who Ne’er Hath Blent His Bread with Tears).

I was interested to hear how the orchestration would succeed in Surumarssi (March Funèbre). Kuusisto states that he has not attempted a Sibelian orchestration. It is most effectively done and, Sibelian orchestration or not, builds in some very Sibelian sounds. A terrific piece well worth hearing for its own sake as is the organ version.

Tenor Mika Pohjonen, returns with orchestra for Salem (Onward, Ye Brethren), before Suur’ olet, Herra (Ode) where the tenor is used instead of choir and any feel of congregational singing is dispelled. This arrangement of Musique Religieuse ends with On kaunis maa (How Fair Are Earth and Living) instead of the Finlandia Hymn of the organ version, giving the whole piece a more reflective conclusion with a quiet orchestra coda.

With two fine soloists and the first rate YL Male Voice Choir, Sibelius’ version of this work is well work hearing. It is certainly interesting to hear what the composer was doing in the so called silent years. It is also good to hear the 1967 Marcussen Organ of Helsinki Cathedral  in such excellent voice. Helsinki Cathedral organist and lecturer at the Sibelius Academy, Harri Viittanen, is excellent, bringing refinement and sensitivity as well as, occasionally, allowing the organ to sound out magnificently.

Jaakko Kuusisto and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra are excellent in the conductor’s arrangement of the work, a version that will give much pleasure.

The recordings from Helsinki Cathedral and the Sibelius Hall, Lahti are first rate and there are excellent booklet notes from Andrew Barnett as well as full texts and translations.

I thought this new release might just be for die hard Sibelians but I found much to really enjoy as I am sure many others will.
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