24 Aug 2010

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo, Op. 7.

Sibelius’s 1892 symphonic poem for soloists, chorus, and orchestra is in the tradition of the cantata-like symphonies of the nineteenth century, as found in Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang or Mahler’s Second Symphony.

Derived from Finnish mythology, the movements depict major events in the life of the hero Kullervo and found in the epic the Kalevala. This five-movement works opens with an instrumental piece that sets the stage for idiom Sibelius would explore in the work, and the reading by conductor Ari Rasilainen is convincing. The breadth of timbre, the pacing of rhythm and the placement of the percussive accents at the dramatically appropriate points support the structure of the movement. The second movement is a depiction of Kullervo’s youth and is reminiscent structurally of a Scherzo. In this movement the chordal figures in the low brass evoke well an important element of the style associated with Sibelius’s mature symphonies. At the same time, some of the colors are typical of Sibelius, the extended lines in the clarinet interacting with strings and other sections of the orchestra.

In the third movement Sibelius leave Kullervo’s story to the suggestions of instrumental writing, but incorporates voices to clarify the narrative. Kullervo’s story resembles that of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walk├╝re, except for its tragic consequences in the Kalevala when the hero realizes that he seduced his sister. His sister commits suicide, and Kullervo resolves to become a warrior, where he meets his own tragic fate. Here the male chorus relates the lays of the Kalevala with excellent diction, which sets up the exchanges between the solo voices that convey the dialogue between Kullervo and his sister. Sibelius punctuates the choral sections with appropriate figures in the orchestra, and Rasilainen does well to allow the forces to render the sometimes dense score with admirable clarity

Of the two soloists, Juha Uusitalo should be familiar to audiences from his recent international performances, including Wotan in Zubin Mehta’s recent Ring cycle in Barcelona (released on Blu-Ray). This recording of Kullervo captures Uusitalo at an earlier point in this career, since it is based on performances given between 13 and 15 December 2005. Uusitalo is persuasive here, with his sonorous voice emerging clearly; soprano Satu Vihavainen likewise delivered a fine performance, with those voices prominent in the third movement, where Sibelius used voices to bring out the dramatic core of Kullervo’s story. Voices are absent from the fourth movement, and Rasilainen does well here bring out the evocative music to continue Sibelius’s narrative as envision in this score. The chorus is part of the final movement, which depicts the Kullervo’s death, and the text serves as a fine valediction of the Finnish hero.

This is a work that reveals much about Sibelius’s development as a symphonist and at the same time stands well on its own merits through Rasilainen’s compelling interpretation. While Sibelius is known better for his instrumental symphonies, that should not detract from the merits of the Kullervo Symphony or the symphonic poems that include voice.

This fine CPO recording includes the texts and translations of the vocal music, and the Karin Kempken’s notes offer some good background on this fine work by Sibelius. The sound is clear and rich, without excesses that detract from the nicely voiced chords. Not the first recording of this important work, this release is a solid contribution to the discography of Sibelius.

James L. Zychowicz