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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kullervo - symphonic poem for soloists, chorus and orchestra, op. 7 (1891-2)
Soile Isokoski (soprano); Tommi Hakala (baritone); YL Male Voice Choir
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Finlandia Hall, December 2007. DDD
ONDINE ODE1122-5 [77:56]
Experience Classicsonline

Segerstamís Kullervo has an epic quality and one of extremes. We are not short of really fine Kullervo recordings: Spano on Telarc for one and Všnskš for another. This disc does not make the choice any easier. This is a big-boned expansive reading which takes time to make its points; extremely enjoyable it is too. It stands at the other extreme from Rasilainen but is three minutes short of the Colin Davis on BMG. There are times Ė and quite a few times - when this reads like a piloted deconstruction (not destruction, mark you) in slowed motion. It fascinates as it unfolds. While the numbered Sibelius symphonies can be quite vulnerable to damage from self-indulgence, Kullervo proves not just robust but resilient in its innate vitality. There are times when you think as you listen to this disc: this is just self-indulgent. Well, if it is, it certainly works.
There is so much to note; so much that makes you stop in your tracks before you are on to the next impression. In the first movement at 10.03 note the flute figure that unfolds for us to revel in. One can easily imagine Segerstam beaming† with pleasure at that moment. The playing somehow exudes rather than springs out. At 5.58 in the same movement and as if to defy criticism the music has a vitally emphatic attack. In the second movement at 7:13 the stuttering brass figures are steadier, more indomitable, than usual. After two movements where Segerstamís pacing errs on the slower side the third movement positively zips along. The choral singing is delivered with a stinging and thudding power. This can be heard for example at 6:59 where Kullervo Ė and Segerstam - must be at full gallop with horse mane and beard flying. For the first time I thought about how predictive this writing is of Nightride and Sunrise. There are butter-richer baritones than Tommi Hakala but he really makes his words tell. There is no rush, no acid and no fast-spitting delivery. Isokoski has less of an alto style than many of the females who have taken on this role. She reminded me of Berglundís 1970s Luonnotar, Taru Valjakka; did Valjakka ever sing in Kullervo? In the tragic finale Segerstam and his orchestra lend the high violins a real sweetness in their mourning sobs (0:49). And the wraith of the galloping theme from the first movement can be heard at 2:30. Then at 6.10 another indelibly memorable coup when we hear that grumbling insistent pulse made to sound like half rumble-half moan.
I have not heard the original Segerstam Kullervo on Chandos CHAN9393. Itís worth noting though and not least because there Segerstam uses the same soprano, Soile Isokoski. On that occasion back in 1990 she was paired with Raimo Laukka (bar) as Kullervo. As with the rest of that series the forces are from Danish National Radio. A pity that Brilliant chose to omit it from their recent reissue. It would by some accounts have made the set stronger.
An epic Kullervo which commands its own place in a crowded and competitive field of fine recordings and performances.
Rob Barnett


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