RECORDING OF THE MONTH
By Stephen Hall
By Stephen Hall
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Kullervo, symphonic poem for soloists, chorus and orchestra Op.7 (1892) [78:29] (I. Introduction: Allegro moderato [14:00] II. Kullervo’s Youth: Grave [15:56] III. Kullervo and his sister: Allegro vivace [24:19] IV. Kullervo goes to war: Alla Marcia [9:38]V. Kullervo’s death: Andante [14:32]) Randi Stene (mezzo); Peter Mattei (baritone) National Male Chorus of Estonia Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Paavo Järvi rec. Stockholm, 14-19 March 1997 VIRGIN CLASSICS 3913632 [78:29]
The Finnish national epic ‘Kalevala’ gave Sibelius many ‘springboards’ from early days to his last published work. The composer used ‘Jean’ rather than ‘Janne’ at the suggestion of an uncle so as to sound more European at a time when Finland was a mere Grand Duchy after years of Swedish and Russian rule. French was the ‘cultured’ language of Russia in the mid-19th century and since the 18th century it had been usual to Latinise Finnish surnames. Well, it made sense when the Finnish language could only be understood by Finns and Hungarians and the important northern country was neither Scandinavian nor Slavic. Never make the mistake of calling a Finn a Scandinavian or you might end up with a nose bleed! The Kalevala stands among the aural traditions of the ancient Irish cycles and the Icelandic sagas. It has some scant resemblance to Nordic mythology before it was sanitised but is actually closer to the myths of the Indus and Ganges. This is no real surprise when one digs and finds that so-called ‘Celtic’ migration from the sub-continent split into many strands. It so happened that the related tribes of modern Hungary and Finland retained linguistic similarities. Sibelius was born in 1865 into a Swedish-speaking family but his parents were aware of the country’s nationalism so sent Jean to a Finnish-speaking school. Under the loose control of Russia (1809-1917) such schools were permitted. In any event the Russia grip was weakening in Sibelius’s boyhood and Sweden had long ceased to be imperialistic, preferring trade with the west and development at home. He had been steeped in his nation’s history and had a love of the arctic forests and tundra of his land which he could ‘describe’ with his gift for orchestration. The student Sibelius was brilliant but lazy and became an alcoholic in the bohemian intellectual climate of Helsinki. What surprises me so much about this Kullervo with a young Paavo Järvi, is that the whole work is more ‘Sibelian’ than the rather later Symphony No.1, which has a bit too much Tchaikovsky for my liking. Maybe young Sibelius in 1892 was writing for the home market whereas the symphony was ‘for export’. In any event the result is Sibelius in his own voice achieved rather earlier than in the more formal works. A useful way of seeing this is to refer to Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ of just a few years later. This also ignored formal structure but remains a great composer’s first important utterance. Anthony Short’s insert notes with this CD explain that Sibelius called Kullervo a ‘symphony’ in letters to friends. However I go along with Mr Short in thinking that ‘symphonic cantata’ better fits the bill. Short’s reference to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Manfred’ is relevant but the obvious difference is that Kullervo uses soloists and choruses. Kullervo is a character featured in Runes 31 to 36 of the epic Kalevala. He is an unpromising subject because he was doomed to tragedy and had a ‘big attitude problem’ by latterday standards. The basic story is that Kullervo is brought up by his uncle, who has killed the boy’s father. The boy’s behaviour is delinquent and the uncle sells Kullervo into serfdom, presumably to be rid of him. Kullervo’s resentment and wish for vengeance lack the redeeming features of another Sibelius character, Leminkainnen, who was arrogant but at least heroic. Not so with Kullervo; he is generally violent and negative. On the way back to take on his uncle in a vengeful showdown, he meets a beggar girl whom he seduces (rapes) only to find that she was his sister who had been lost after their father’s murder. She kills herself in shame and Kullervo falls on his sword but only after he has killed the evil uncle and most of his family. It makes the last scene of Hamlet look like a small family squabble. The first movement of Kullervo, Allegro moderato in its economy of expression takes us straight to mature Sibelius. In this it differs from the first two symphonies. It is a rather compressed exhibition of the spareness of the landscape and the wandering of Kullervo’s exile but there’s joy there as well. Through this music are woven, like a toxin, presentiments of Kullervo’s trail of tragedy. This 14 minute movement could stand alone and be entirely convincing, especially under Paavo Järvi’s innate and evident understanding of what is going on. The second movement, ‘Kullervo’s youth’, is a mere 16 minute matter with a relentless undertone. There’s brilliant string writing but with tragic interjections over a main theme. This extends to the rest of the orchestra with an economy and pace akin to the Third Symphony. This evolves from a simple signature theme into other subjects of sturm und drang but tracks the story with very few slips into mere imitation. This is mature Sibelius and what Constant Lambert called the ‘music of the future’ in his book ‘Music Ho’. We are far ahead of the actual year of composition with Tchaikovsky still alive (for a year). The third and longest movement, ‘Kullervo and his sister’ begins with the upbeat melodies and urgent rhythms heard earlier. The drawback with this CD is that Virgin/EMI do not supply texts. Even a reference web link would have helped but none is supplied. Given that Anthony Short’s insert notes (p.4) describe the composer’s altercation with his mentor Wegelius about references to “items of clothing” we are left not actually knowing what went on. Was it consent, seduction or rape. True, troubled and dominant sounds occur from about four minutes into this ‘mini-opera’ of 24 minutes but without a text we are left in ignorance. I hope that Virgin will remedy this omission. I should however stress that the mezzo role – here brilliantly sung by Randi Stene - is far from weak. In the brief fourth movement, ‘Kullervo goes to war’ there is a lot of bellicose melodic stuff. This reflects both the anti-hero’s getting even with the family who dumped him and the primal sin of incest. Sibelius accordingly underpins the movement with insidious minor harmonies which deserve more attention than I have ever heard discussed. This is genius at work. The proof is in the last (fifth) movement, ‘Kullervo’s Death’. Such lonely, wilderness, lost-soul music is full-on in the literal Greek sense. Again, without a text we have no idea exactly what is being said, However Sibelius was so good at conveying meaning without words that we instantly recognise the dark clouds of hopelessness. They duly arrive about 10 minutes into this extraordinary and relentless movement. The distorted reprise of Kullervo’s ‘theme’ is not heroic but brave and terminally tragic. Everyone involved in this recording brings the sensitivity needed to articulate what is ‘Baltic’ music as distinct from Scandinavian. It is done to perfection. Engineering and production are invisible and inaudible just as it should be. All involved should be congratulated for showing again that Sibelius had started to plough his own furrow in frozen soil well before the works that made his name in Europe and America. Apart from there being no manufacturer-supplied text or net access to Runes 31-36 I recommend this CD as my choice of this summer.