Sibelius conducted the premiere of the
Kullervo symphony in April 1892.
It was a sensational success appearing
in a year not noted for major coups.
While 1893 yielded up the last symphonies
of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky there
was little of such emotional and musical
magnitude in 1892. Despite this, for
most of his life, Sibelius deliberately
suppressed Kullervo in
much the same way that Sorabji banned
performance of his works. Here however
the reason had nothing to do with inadequate
performance. The Finnish composer had
moved rapidly onwards in style and did
not wish to be portrayed as dependent
on nationalistic sentiment. Kullervo
is certainly a work with a strong
nationalist signature although I would
be hard put to define it. His style
rapidly moved from grandiloquence to
concision and economy but not before
it had tracked through En Saga and
the first two symphonies. The lavish
expansiveness of Kullervo with
its Brucknerian reach and excursions
into quasi-Puccinian drama and Tchaikovskian
romance represented a road undeniably
travelled but which was behind him now.
In some enigmatic way he perhaps feared
the pull of Kullervo –
an obstruction to what he had to say
in the period 1904-1924. The wonder
is that it survived the destruction
meted out to the Eighth Symphony.
Whatever the reason,
until 1971 only the fortunate few among
music-lovers had heard Kullervo.
This was the year when the newly-appointed
Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund directed
performances and a recording of the
work with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
It was issued on 2 EMI LPs in the set
SLS807. The box was graced with a stunning
cover reproducing a Kalevala painting
by Akseli Gallen-Kalela. That set held
the field unchallenged until the CD
era during which a host of versions
appeared including a Helsinki Philharmonic
Orchestra/Berglund remake for EMI in
1985. Other conductors whose recordings
have been issued in that time are Panula,
Salonen, Segerstam, Järvi (both
Neeme and Paavo), Vänskä,
two versions from Colin Davis, Saraste,
Spano and this one from Ari Rasilainen.
Rasilainen stands at
the opposite pole from Colin Davis whose
RGA-BMG recording ran to in excess of
eighty minutes but whose more recent
LSO Live version came to 72:12. The
young Finnish conductor is closer in
time to the second Colin Davis version
and to Robert Spano’s recent Telarc
recording with the Atlanta Symphony.
The Rasilainen is full of vitality and
his excellent male voice choir sounds
amongst the largest of all the various
recorded versions. It has thunderous
impact. There is precisely coordinated
enunciation to relish and the joyously
etched sound of the Finnish language
is a delight. The eerie effects of trembling
strings and darkly moaning brass at
the start of Kullervo’s Death
register superbly. However this is a
rapaciously competitive field and there
is something excessively velvety about
the Pfalzbau, Ludwigshafen acoustic
that makes the sound unduly warm and
opaque in the loudest massed passages.
This prevents a full recommendation.
It’s a pity as this is a no-holds-barred
performance immersed in the liquor of
late romanticism. I compared this with
the superb sound secured by CPO for
Julius Röntgen’s Third Symphony
and the Röntgen is clearly the
superior. Whether it is the hall or
a matter of microphone placement or
both I do not know but the acoustic
factor casts an unwelcome shroud over
the fortissimo passages.
I heard this played
in its standard CD mode not as an SACD.