RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kullervo, Op. 7 (1892) [79:29]
Olli KORTEKANGAS (b. 1955)
Migrations (2014) [25:22]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899, rev 1900) [8:18]
Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo); Tommi Hakala (baritone);
YL Male Voice Choir
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. live, 4-6 February 2016, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA. DSD
Finnish texts and English translations included
BIS BIS-9048 SACD [79:29 + 33:40]
Though it has flaws I’m an admirer of Kullervo. I first got to know it through the pioneering Paavo Berglund recording made with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1970 (review). I borrowed the LPs from York City Library several times but though the purely orchestral movements quickly made an impression it took me some time to come to terms with the extensive central movement – probably it was all that singing in the unfamiliar Finnish language. Eventually I plucked up the courage to buy the LPs for myself and got to know the work a little better. The LPs are long gone but I still have on CD Berglund’s second recording of the work, made for EMI in Helsinki in 1985.
Kullervo, though a great success at its premiere in 1892, was then subject to serious neglect. Andrew Barnett points out in his very useful notes that Sibelius never withdrew the work but I don’t believe he made any attempts to promote it either. As a result it was not heard in the twentieth century until some months after the composer’s death. It is to Berglund, above all, though, that we must be grateful for the score’s renaissance. His premiere recording in 1970 brought the piece to wider public attention and further recordings by other conductors have followed in the wake of his.
The neglect of Kullervo is not hard to understand. For a start, it requires two soloists and a male voice choir who must be able to sing convincingly in Finnish – not all that many non-Finns have tried, I suspect. Just as importantly, it’s a long work and it does tend to sprawl somewhat. A certain amount of editing would not have come amiss and I don’t find the fourth movement particularly interesting. The danger, though, is that we inevitably view Kullervo through the prism of hindsight and our view is likely to be coloured by those strikingly original and often very succinct works of Sibelius’s maturity. Kullervo, though, is not just a very early work it is also, I believe, his first essay in orchestral writing: prior to that most of his music had been for chamber and instrumental pieces. It was a huge step for him to write a work on such a scale.
The creative spark was the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. Sibelius had known it since childhood but, as Andrew Barnett reminds us, he really came under its spell when he was away from home, studying in Berlin and Vienna (1889-91). Indeed, Kullervo was begun during this period of study. The tale that he chose to use as the basis for his new piece was the tragic story of Kullervo who was forcibly separated from his family as a child. Reunited with them later, he goes off to pay the family taxes and on the journey home he encounters three young women and tries to entice each one in turn into his sleigh. The third one takes up the invitation and the inevitable happens. Afterwards, as they talk, Kullervo realises that he has ravished his long-lost sister. He goes off to war and vanquishes his wicked uncle, Untamo, who had separated him from his family all those years ago. Finally, racked with guilt at his actions towards his sister, he kills himself. A violent and tragic tale indeed and in the climate of increasing nationalist fervour of late nineteenth-century Finland it’s understandable that Sibelius should have used this tale as the spark to create a red-blooded if not always subtle composition.
Osmo Vänskä has recorded Kullervo already. His fine performance with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was also made for BIS. This new Minnesota Orchestra recording, recorded live in concert, is a fine appendix to his excellent second cycle of the numbered symphonies which he’s recently completed. For this performance he has the same mezzo, Lilli Paasikivi, who sang for him in Lahti. He also has the same choir: I understand that the Helsinki University Chorus (YL) which featured on the Lahti disc has changed its name to the YL Male Voice Choir. The baritone soloists are different: Raimo Laukka sang on the earlier recording. Comparing the two recordings I hear few significant interpretative differences. The sound on the Lahti recording is very good but, as I’ve noted when comparing Vänskä’s other Minnesota Sibelius recordings with their Lahti predecessors, the older recordings seem to place the performers a little more distantly. Despite the quality of the Lahti sound the new recording has much greater impact and presence.
In the first of the five movements, ‘Introduction’, Vänskä’s reading is urgent and dynamic. He conveys the sweep and fervour of the music. There is, perhaps, marginally more dramatic thrust in the new performance compared to the Lahti account and I don’t think that’s simply due to the greater impact of the new recording. The Minnesota Orchestra sounds superb: the brass are proud and burnished in tone; the woodwinds are agile and characterful; the strings are rich yet supple.
The second movement, ‘Kullervo’s Youth’ is marked Grave and we find Vänskä adopting quite a deliberate pace, just as he did in Lahti. It’s interesting to note that Berglund, in his Helsinki performance, is markedly quicker and, indeed, his performance takes just 14:08. Sir Colin Davis on a live recording that I reviewed just recently, adopts similar pacing to Berglund and his overall timing is virtually identical. Arguably, this is one of the movements that might have benefited from an editor’s red pencil so it might be thought that a broadly paced reading would be too much of a good thing. In fact I think Vänskä succeeds. Helped by very fine playing from his orchestra – and a recording that conveys all the strands of the scoring – he presents the music very convincingly. At the start there’s expertly controlled quiet playing from the strings. Then, after about 6 minutes the woodwind have their chance to shine and they take it, delivering some dexterous staccato playing. Gradually the music grows in intensity and the performers respond with great commitment. I found this a very involving performance.
The central movement, ‘Kullervo and his sister’, introduces the voices. There’s great energy in the opening pages as Kullervo’s journey to and from the taxman is illustrated. Here the playing has great spirit as does the singing of the choir, which acts as narrator. There’s similar spirit in the Lahti performance but the impact is not as full-blooded. In part I think this is because the choir seems to be placed further behind the orchestra as compared with the new recording. Much of the choral narrative is in unison or in two-part writing but this places no fetters on the performance: the narration is exciting. The key part of the movement is the encounter between Kullervo and his sister and especially the post-coital dialogue during which the awful truth is revealed (from 13:10). Both baritones are very good indeed but I have a slight preference for Raimo Laukka on the Lahti recording. His singing is a bit more noble and lyrical in style whereas Tommi Hakala, though excellent, is somewhat more forceful in his style. Incidentally, the pair of soloists in Minneapolis is recorded with fine presence.
As the wronged sister, Lilli Paasikivi is tragically magnificent in both recordings and I’m not surprised that Vänskä engaged her again for his new recording. She owns the part. Her voice is wonderfully communicative and she sings very expressively and with rich tone. Her long solo is very impassioned yet superbly controlled and she’s particularly impressive in the last stanza of poetry that she has to sing (from 20:34). There’s a daringly long silence after she’s finished singing: Kullervo knows. His great outburst of realisation and self-loathing (23:24) is anguished and vivid in Tommi Hakala’s rendition. In the right hands this movement has a genuinely operatic feel: the music is in the right hands here.
The fourth movement, ‘Kullervo goes to war’ is the shortest; it’s also the weakest, I think. It’s another purely orchestral movement. Vänskä takes the piece by the scruff of the neck and plays it with vigour and drive. The finale is ‘Kullervo’s death’ and here the choir narrates his suicide. In my review of Sir Colin Davis’s recording I said that the men of the London Symphony Chorus did very well but here the value of having a Finnish choir is shown. It’s not just a matter of ease with the language: the YL Male Voice Choir has a unique timbre; the bass tone is full and black while the tenors’ tone is sappy and ringing. They’re magnificent in this movement, demonstrating a tremendous dynamic range and telling the story with huge commitment. It’s a gripping, intense performance to which the orchestra contributes as significantly as the choir. The Lahti performance is also very fine – it’s about a minute longer, too – but the sheer impact of the newcomer wins the palm. After Kullervo’s tragic end the work is brought to a blazing conclusion, ending an outstanding Kullervo.
The Minnesota Orchestra really pushed out the boat for the concerts at which this recording was made. Not only did they commission a new work, of which more in a moment, but also they brought over the Finnish choir, which is probably over fifty strong judging by the booklet photograph of the concert. Their Finnish guests certainly justified their trip for they were heavily involved in all three works on the programme. Finlandia is presented in its choral version. Hitherto I’ve only been aware of an Ormandy recording of this version (review). According to the notes, in 1938 Sibelius was “reluctantly persuaded” to arrange the part of the work that includes the famous ‘big tune’, setting the tune for a choir. In 1940 he replaced the original set of words with verses by another Finnish poet. I have to say that if it’s true that Sibelius was reluctant to incorporate a choir – and I can well believe that he was – then it might have been preferable to let this version slumber undisturbed. However, I can understand why it might have appealed on an occasion such as this. Vänskä leads a fine performance of the orchestral passages – the allegro section is very fast – and the choral section is done with fine patriotic fervour. This is greeted with a great ovation so it obviously struck a chord with the audience. By the way, that applause is the only evidence you’ll hear throughout this set that an audience was present.
The Finnish composer, Olli Kortekangas numbered among his teachers the late Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Migrations was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra with a two-fold brief. As the composer explains in a booklet note, he was asked to mark the 150th anniversary of Finnish migration to North America. He was also asked to write a piece compatible with Kullervo. That, I suppose, influenced the scoring, which is for mezzo solo, male voice choir and orchestra. The texts are poems in English by Sheila Packa, a Minnesotan poet with Finnish roots. Migrations is constructed in seven sections, which play continuously; three of these sections are orchestral interludes.
The first poem that Kortekangas has set features the choir. In the orchestral interludes three instruments - horn, clarinet and cello - are allotted prominent solo roles and it’s the horn that is featured in the first interlude. A mezzo solo follows in which Lilli Paasikivi offers passionate singing against a turbulent orchestral background. As in Kullervo, her singing is technically excellent and vividly communicative. The clarinet and cello are to the fore in the fourth, instrumental movement after which we hear a movement for unaccompanied choir in which the music is founded upon strong dancing rhythms. After a third orchestral interlude in which all three featured instruments are prominent the last movement brings together all the forces. This, I think, has the best music in the piece. Kortekangas conveys strong emotions, especially in the writing for the mezzo soloist.
Migrations is an interesting work. Kortekangas is clearly a very experienced vocal composer and he writes for both the human voice and for the orchestra with great assurance. His music is tonal and accessible but challenging as well. However, I am not sure that I shall quickly return to it.
Summing up, this set contains the finest recorded performance of Kullervo that I’ve ever heard and I hope those who doubt the importance of the work, despite its flaws, in our understanding of the evolution of Sibelius will be converted if they hear it. The BIS recording is magnificent. I listened to this as an SACD, albeit in stereo only, not as a surround disc. Nonetheless I got a vivid sense of the performance. If you already own the Lahti recording I think you can rest content in the sense that it is a fine account of the work, well recorded. However, the excellence of the recorded sound on the new set means that if you decide to acquire this disc too it represents a genuine upgrade. Newcomers to this formative work should definitely choose this superb new version.
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