It takes courage to pair Sibelius Luonnotar and Aare Merikanto's Ekho, as Sakari Oramo did with the BBC SO at the Barbican on 7/1/18. Both pieces present fearsome technical challenges but Oramo and the BBCSO had a secret weapon in Anu Komsi, who can handle extremes of range and timbre, while also infusing her singing with warmth and meaning. Though Komsi sings with such assurance that she made the pieces flow with natural grace, they aren't at all easy; she's been singing them for a long time. Experience shows ! This performance of Merikanto's Ekho was wonderful, much better than Komsi's recording with Petri Sakari and the Turku Philharmonic. The BBCSO are a much more sophisticated orchestra, with a richer sound. And of course Sakari Oramo knows the singer and orchestra pretty well. Since I've written about Luonnotar so many times over the years (Please read HERE) this is a good time to think about Ekho.
After swimming in primeval oceans for 700 years (think amniotic fluid) Luonnotar called out, in agony to the god Ukko, who answered by sending a bird whose egg Luonnotar nurtured, from which the universe was born. Ekho was a nymph, blessed with beauty of form and of voice. But when she called out to Narcissus, he didn't care about anything but himself. Although Merikanto's music seems lush - lots of glossy strings - it is also very much of its time. Writing in 1922, Merikanto was well aware of the trends in European music around him. Ekho doesn't even pretend to be folkloric - it’s "modern" music, almost neo-classical, reflecting the clear sighted vision of a new world emerging from war. Think of the clean lines of 1920's visual arts, and the gracious stylization of form that engendered. The poem by Viekko Antero Koskenniemi (1885-1962) comes from the collection Elegioja. In that context, Ekho is almost a New Woman, talented and emancipated Lots of those in the 1920's, in Finland and everywhere else. Like many smart women, Ekho thinks she can reach out. But men like Narcissus could not care less.
The sound of hunting horns and ominous rumblings - Ekho is a nymph of the forest, but what,is her mission ? Suddenly the line leaps upward "Narkissos, Narkissos — hu-huu, hu-huu! " Almost a war cry. The orchestra rears up. Turbulence, then clearing away to quieter sounds, a pattern of call and non-response that repeats in different forms. Ekho calls again: "Narkissos, ma huudan, hu-huu, hu-huu!", the last word projected into the voice. Ekho is listening, but Narcissus isn't. Summer's ending (ie the end of fertility). Komsi's voice lowers seductively , halo'd by strings, harp and melancholy violin, then rises again in a long, soaring arc. Near silence - you count the bars, listening and gradually, sounds return, shimmering like sound waves. "Se mun kuoltuanikin soi ja soi" (It's my ringing and playing). Liike an echo, the first line repeats, in muted form. "Koko yön minä yksin tanssinut oon ja kutsunut armasta karkeloon" (all night, I danced alone). Dark sustained chords breaks. Then silence. Sibelius Luonnotar is grander, and more dramatic. Merikanto's Ekho is compact, but just as tightly structured and haunting.
I don't know who created the image above, but it's brilliant ! We do live in an age where reality doesn't penetrate the minds of folks like Narcissus.