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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kullervo op. 7 (1892) [71:47]
Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo)
Nathan Gunn (baritone)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Men's Chorus/Robert Spano
rec. 27-28 May 2006, Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia. DDD
TELARC CD-80665 [71:47] 



Spano clearly has his own ideas about Kullervo, a work that since the 1980s has been multiply recorded after decades of composer-sanctioned purdah. It emerged from the shadows in 1971, in a recording that remains the gold standard, Paavo Berglund’s EMI recording with the Bournemouth. That two LP boxed set EMI SLS807 held sway unchallenged until the CD era at which point a host of versions have appeared including a Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund remake for EMI in 1985, Panula, Salonen, Segerstam, Järvi (both Neeme and Paavo), Vänskä, two versions from Colin Davis, Saraste and one very recently and as yet unheard from Ari Rasilainen (CPO).

The Telarc publicity material claims this as a first recording of Kullervo with an English-speaking chorus. I am sure this must be right. All the other versions if not actually recorded in Finland or elsewhere in the Scandinavian countries, imported a Finnish choir. However the Atlanta Men’s Chorus carry off their important role with all the barking resonance, massed weight and thudding attack that you could wish for. They do this without a hint of American accent. Of course the piece is sung in Finnish exactly as it should be and the unanimity with which they spit out ‘reki rasasi’ is spot-on. You can read more about the chorus’s preparation work in the note that appears at the end of this review. Their hard work and that of their coach and of the choir’s Jeff Baxter, assistant director of choruses and Director of Choruses Norman MacKenzie has paid dividends. Next February the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus will be singing Rachmaninov’s Bells under the RLPO’s brilliant new conductor Vasily Petrenko . If they can achieve the sturdily authentic effect borne high by the Atlanta Chorus in Kullervo they will have done well indeed. Both Gunn - who was new to me - and Hellekant – known from her recording of Nystroem’s Svetlanov-led Sinfonia del Mare – have the necessary brooding fire and flammable volatility.

Right from the very start Spano impresses with dulled rhythmic lines cloaked in a mysterious miasma. There are throughout this reading a myriad freshly imagined touches and balance emphases which will joy the heart of true Sibelians. Just occasionally – pretty rare really - I detected a fine veneer of misplaced sentimentality. There are two fleeting examples in Kullervo Goes to Battle at 6.30 and in Kullervo’s Death at 1:34. However these are transients and what one feels is a radiantly strong sense of rightness. This is mirrored in the weighed down world-weariness of the despairing yet magnificent march in the final movement from 7.23 onwards. Few have conveyed so well the arching tragedy of this work.

None of the versions I have heard has been poor but this one can count among its peers the excellent recordings by Salonen (Sony), the expansive but immensely and enigmatically successful Colin Davis first version on RCA-BMG (82876-55706-2) and of course the first Berglund analogue recording on EMI Classics.

Full notes plus words and parallel translation are in the booklet.

You should note that I heard this in the CD version. There is also a separate SACD under Telarc SACD-60665.

A triumph for all concerned.
Rob Barnett

Few have conveyed so well as Spano the arching tragedy of this work and the male chorus are magnificently idiomatic ... see Full Review

"The all-volunteer Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus learned Finnish in order to perform this piece. Jeff Baxter, assistant director of choruses in Atlanta and a tenor in the ASO chorus, began learning the language from a native speaker about a year ago, in preparation for training the chorus to sing the piece. The Finnish native speaker did not know music, so she intoned the syllables, and then Baxter and Director of Choruses Norman MacKenzie made a phonetic translation. The chorus undertook months of preparation, including drilling on Monday nights on the language alone.
"What really impressed me was the chorus," said Producer Elaine Martone. "They gave 150 percent, molding the phrases and singing with such passion and beauty that it took my breath away. On Sunday, at about 3:30 (the midway point of the recording) there was such a level of excitement that I felt completely out-of-body."



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