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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kullervo Op.7 (1892) [79.29]
Finlandia Op.26 (1899, rev.1900: choral version 1940) [8.19]
Olli KORTEKANGAS (b.1955)
Migrations (2014) [25.22]
YL Male Voice Choir, Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo), Tommi Hakala (baritone), Minnesota Orchestra/Vänskä
live rec. Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA, 4-6 February 2016
Reviewed in surround 5.0
BIS BIS-9048 SACD [2 CDs: 114.05]

For most of us Kullervo dates back to the famous revival and subsequent recording by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1971. That disc remains a benchmark in every respect, including the superb stereo recording. At the 2015 Lahti Sibelius Festival I met a member of the Helsinki chorus who made that recording, and he still had vivid memories of the excitement at that time. However, we have been very lucky in the years since then with multiple performances, at least three of them on SACD, all of which have been worth hearing and all of which have been good recordings. Vänskä joins their ranks for the second time on BIS, now with his Minnesota Orchestra and this time on SACD. What he brings is not merely performing experience, but also a definite style of Sibelius interpretation; detailed, revealing of rhythmic undercurrents, dynamic extremes and a willingness to take risks. The main risk with this particular work is the second movement, over which he takes more than 19 minutes, over 5 minutes longer than either Berglund or Neeme Järvi. That and more expansive tempi elsewhere result in the longest performance yet (I think), longer even than the famously relaxed Leif Segerstam - who incidentally uses the same choir. Disc One of this new two-disc issue is devoted to just Kullervo and with inter-movement breaks it just tops 80 minutes. Another risk is a willingness to make huge pauses, particularly noticeable in the two choral movements. The live audiences must have been holding their collective breath enabling utter silence to persist. The quality of singing, choral and solo, is top class, and the Minnesota musicians follow their music director with exemplary skill. There is not the sense of excitement and discovery that is to be found on the old EMI/Berglund disc; that is replaced with a multiplicity of revealed details, though without a loss of symphonic line. Both soloists are native Finnish speakers and have recorded this work before. No one has quite approached the soloistic coup achieved by Neeme Järvi who had Karita Mattila and Jorma Hynninen back in 1985. Those who have been collecting Vänskä's new cycle of the complete symphonies will want this anyway. Anyone coming new to the work will be very satisfied with this but should seriously consider the Berglund as well, now available on Warner Classics.

This new BIS set does not stop there. Disc Two contains not only the choral version of Finlandia, but also a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas. Finlandia is performed in a hybrid version including chorus, which is used regularly in Finland, notably at the Lahti festival, as a festive finale. Vänskä gives it his full attention, resulting in a dynamic, tightly controlled, rhythmically precise rendering which, quite rightly raises the roof. The audience, for the only time on this disc, are allowed to applaud enthusiastically. It is very exciting indeed.

Kortekangas' Migrations is scored for mezzo, male chorus and orchestra. It was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra specifically to accompany Kullervo performances. The work is a setting of four poems on the subject of borders by Sheila Packa. Packa, according to her website, is a poet, writer, and teacher with Minnesota and Finnish roots. She has published quite a lot of work and is a significant presence on the cultural scene. Her poetry works well in these musical settings and both the chorus and Lilli Paasikivi are an object lesson in clear singing, so that words and music can both make an impact. The five sung movements are linked by three short orchestral interludes. The work, whilst clearly modern, does not operate at the extremes of radicalism and proves to be a very satisfying piece even on first acquaintance. The orchestral part is rich and inventive, including some hair-raising solos for horn. It is easy to assume with a new piece that one will listen once and then only ever put on the Sibelius. This is probably not true, for Olli Kortekangas is an approachable figure, musically speaking, and the effort to get to know this piece is definitely worthwhile.

The booklet, in English, Finnish, German and French, contains a typically wide-ranging and literate essay on Sibelius by Andrew Barnett, and a shorter essay about Kortekangas and his work by the composer himself. Finnish-English texts for the Sibelius and English texts for the Kortekangas are followed by biographical notes on the artists and technical information. BIS have provided their usual high quality recording with the spacious hall sound making a strong impact. The dynamic range is wide and this issue, as EMG nearly used to say, will sound at its best on large gramophones, i.e. big speakers, preferably five of them.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)



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