Tobias: Jonah’s Mission

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Jonah’s Mission
PERFORMER: Pille Lill (soprano), Urve Tauts (mezzo-soprano), Peter Svensson (tenor), Raimo Laukka (baritone), Mati Palm (bass); Oratorio Choir, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tallinn Boys Choir, Estonian State SO/Neeme Järvi
Des Jona Sendung, first heard in 1909, has a huge amount to commend it. The Estonian composer Rudolf Tobias (1873-1918) ostensibly based it on the story of Jonah and his denunciation of the excesses of Nineveh, but treated it freely, incorporating a wide range of texts (sung in German) so that Jonah’s doubts, self-purgation and propensity to forgiveness are broadened into a kind of prefiguring of Christ’s New Testament mission.


Big sentiments deserve big music, and the oratorio’s epic scale works in its favour. Tobias (and Neeme Järvi’s excellently deployed choral forces are crucial to this) seems able to cope with large-scale structure in the same kind of way that the hefty choral movements of Bruckner and Mahler do.

An underlay of Lisztian transformation and Leitmotif help weld the work into a coherent whole (Tobias is clearly abreast of not just the 19th-century oratorio tradition, but the wider musical European mainstream, too). At its heart he puts a massive affirmatory Sanctus (‘Heilig’). The large-scale fugal writing is ebullient and uplifting, the range of rhythm and colour varied (Tobias was a Rimsky pupil), the chromatic underpinning of the pervasive Chorus mysticus other-worldly. Imagine Schumann’s Scenes from Faust crossed with Elijah and Mahler’s Second or Eighth Symphonies, and you won’t be far adrift.


Järvi generates a lot of energy from this urgent performance. There are very few frayed edges, and his soloists serve him well (particularly in a tenor solo in Part 1; the soprano’s Part 3 arietta; a closing Mahlerian duet and Jonah’s role). The sound differentiates the vocal forces well, if marginally at the expense of the orchestra. Highly recommended.