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LSO IN NEW YORK (II): Sibelius: Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 19, and Kullervo, Op. 7, Monica Groop (Mezzo-soprano), Raimo Laukka (Baritone), Men from the London Symphony Chorus, Joseph Cullen (Director), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 30.09.2005 (BH)



After this marvelously satisfying evening, it was a little dispiriting to think that I may never hear Sibelius’ Kullervo in live performance again – ever.  Sibelius performances are often limited to a handful of well-known works, such as the Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto and Finlandia – and few ensembles have the desire to present this ambitious work, culled from grim subject matter, by a precocious 26-year-old who became an instant star after the work’s premiere.  Also, the forces needed can be daunting: a large orchestra, two soloists and men’s chorus drilled in Finnish.  The subject matter, inspired by a particularly tragic portion of Finland’s epic Kalevala, is also perhaps not to everyone’s liking: the orphan Kullervo grows up despised, raised by his enemies, and without love, knowing only hatred.  Eventually he seduces a young girl who turns out to be his long-lost sister, and in shame they both kill themselves.

The introductory Allegro moderato is as stirring as a hymn, with a sensuous Sibelian shimmer, albeit a bleak one.  Fresh from its excellent Verdi Requiem two days earlier, the London Symphony Orchestra again gave a textbook demonstration of the ability of an enormous, virtuoso orchestra to calm down the decibels to a level that makes you want to sit absolutely still, hoping that the sound of your breathing can’t be heard.  Folk-oriented melodies soon appear, eventually threading through the entire work, which is notable since the composer didn’t return to them in his later tone poems and symphonies.  The second movement, Kullervo’s Youth, was filled with the honeyed timbre of muted strings, and Sibelius’ characteristic soft throbbing, with the brass lines appearing now and then like suddenly sunlit icebergs.

The voices don’t even enter until the third movement, Kullervo and His Sister: Allegro vivace, which also has a folk-like opening, followed by the soloists and chorus in full bore, the music coming down like sheets of black rain.  In Peter Laki’s excellent notes, Sibelius explained his use of a male chorus: he didn’t want ladies’ sensibilities to be offended by the terrible events that the singers have to relate.  The men of the London Symphony Chorus, fresh from the Verdi Requiem two nights earlier, acquitted themselves with even more honor here, singing in Finnish as if they do it every night of the week.  Their robust, hearty tone had a gravity that perfectly suited the piece.

The two characterful soloists were both Finnish.  As Kullervo, Raimo Laukka sang with great intensity, playing a bit of a brute, until the moment when he realizes what he has done.  His voice had an almost palpable sadness near the end, when he sings, “I would have been better off had I not been born, not grown, not been brought into the world, not had to come to this earth...” As the sister, Monica Groop made a touching impression, such as in the long section near the end of the movement, where she recalls getting lost as a child, after picking berries.  Her plaintiveness only underscored the tragedy that followed.  I last heard Ms. Groop as one of the soloists in Chailly’s Mahler Second a few years ago, and she was as luminous here as she was then.

In the fourth movement, Kullervo Goes to Battle, the folk melodies return, with portions resembling Prokofiev’s gently galloping style in Lieutenant Kije.  The music reaches a climax near the end, when the melody is taken up by the woodwinds against a furious accompaniment of repeated string chords.  The LSO musicians handled this so superbly that the dramatic ending provoked spontaneous applause, which seemed perfectly appropriate following such a display.  In the final Kullervo’s Death, the chorus reappears with heartbreaking simplicity, and describes how Kullervo “took his dog with him” to the site where he seduced his sister, and eventually falls on his sword.  The mournful music is anchored against an increasing tremolo in the orchestra, before the work’s searing ending.

The curtain-raiser was Pohjola’s Daughter, written some fourteen years after Kullervo, and showing the composer’s increasing sophistication.  Just a few minutes into its dark, Nordic sleigh-ride opening, I thought: Why is this work so absent from the concert hall?  Its typically Sibelian pulse, ardor for low brass and dramatic construction all make for a beautiful ten minutes or so, especially as expertly painted by the dark palette of the LSO.  The string sections of this group played with a silken unanimity.  There was a brief but memorable solo passage for Tim Hugh, the group’s principal cellist, and leader of a cello section that generally outdid itself in ardor.

As I left the hall and mulled over the likelihood of encountering these works again, I felt doubly grateful for both Sibelius and for the impassioned interpretations of two genuine rarities.  Sir Colin and his splendid Londoners deserve a hearty thank-you for bringing them to us, and perhaps in the year 2056 we’ll hear them again.



Bruce Hodges



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