IN NEW YORK (II): Sibelius: Pohjola’s
Daughter, Op. 19, and Kullervo,
Op. 7, Monica Groop (Mezzo-soprano),
(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
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.