Sibelius: Kullervo - Vänskä
Classical - Orchestral
Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano
Tommi Hakala, baritone
YL Male Voice Choir
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, begins with the creation of the world - from a duck's egg - and goes on to relate a series of tales of magic and adventure. One of the most memorable characters is Kullervo, a flawed hero whose tragic story is told in the course of six songs or runos. These describe multiple murders, rape, incest and finally suicide - a powerful brew that has inspired several Finnish artists. Among them is Jean Sibelius, who in 1891 was a young music student in Vienna. At home in Finland a wave of nationalism was gaining momentum and the Kalevala was an important symbol in the struggle for independence from Russia. But Sibelius - who belonged to the Swedish-speaking minority - was at the time also courting Aino Järnefelt, who came from an influential Finnish-speaking family.
Sometimes called a choral symphony, Sibelius's Kullervo was premiered in 1892, receiving a mixed reception from an audience that didn't know what to make of the score. The work received a few more performances the following year, but was soon overshadowed by the First Symphony. Only in the 1970s did it became more widely known, at which time the score caused something of sensation. Faithful to the urgency and brutality of the score, the present recording was made at live performances at Symphony Hall in Minneapolis, with Osmo Vänskä directing the forces of the Minnesota Orchestra, joined by their Finnish guests Lilli Paasikivi, Tommi Hakala and the eminent YL Male Voice Choir.
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Review by Graham Williams - December 5, 2020
I reviewed this recording in 2017 when it was part of a two-disc set that included ‘Migrations’ a work by Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas (b1955) written to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of modern Finnish immigration to North America. Sensibly BIS have now released Kullervo on a single SACD, allowing it to have more general appeal. Auditioning it again, I continue to find it a most compelling performance and stand by my original review reproduced below.
‘Ever since its first commercial recording in 1970 Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony Op.7 has been blessed by a remarkable number of perceptive interpretations on disc, five of which have been issued on SACD in high resolution multi-channel sound, providing fierce competition to any newcomer. Now, following on from Osmo Vänskä’s superb cycle of the seven numbered Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, we have his latest thoughts on this monumental five movement work. This new live recording is taken from three concerts (4th, 5th and 6th of February 2016) given at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis and is in every respect a serious challenger to existing versions.
Osmo Vänskä first recorded Kullervo in 2001 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra as part of his first Sibelius cycle for BIS and excellent though it was, I have no hesitation in declaring that this new one is even better on a number of counts. Vänskä’s performance is once again epic in scale possessing a marvellous breadth and nobility that seems to have inspired all the participants to give of their best. The overall timing of his earlier recording was an astonishing 81 minutes, yet such was the conductor’s purposeful direction and firm control of the work’s structure it never dragged or lacked a forward pulse. Here Vänskä clocks in at 79’29 and gives a more taut yet still expansive reading of the score.
Timings for the five movements are: I Introduction 12’46, II Kullervo’s Youth 19’05, III Kullervo and his Sister 25’55, IV Kullervo goes to War 9’41, V Kullervo’s Death 11’19. It is in movements II and III that Vänskä brings a special and unique insight to the score. ‘Kullervo’s Youth’ moves inexorably with a tragic mien and a sense of dark foreboding that is totally enveloping thanks to the unwavering focus, concentration and sheer beauty of the Minnesota Orchestra’s playing.
‘Kullervo’s Sister’ opens in thrilling orchestral style before the entry of the splendid 60-strong YL Male Voice Choir from Helsinki whose runic chanting is splendidly balanced with the orchestra in the spacious BIS recording. The two soloists, the mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and baritone Tommi Hakala have both appeared on other recordings of this work – Paasikivi for Vänskä and Hakala for Segerstam. While neither disappoint, I found the occasional unsteadiness in Hakala’s singing and his effortful delivery as he curses himself a slight drawback when compared with, for example, Juha Uusitalo on Ari Rasilainen’s fine CPO recording Sibelius: Kullervo - Rasilainen. There is little doubt though that Vänskä’s absolute grasp of the work’s architecture and his authoritative direction of the superlative Minnesota Orchestra yield a performance of spacious grandeur that does provide many moments of frisson rarely matched by the studio recordings.
The engineering of the BIS recording team on this 5.0 channel hybrid SACD is excellent. The sound is vivid and spacious while the surround channels add pleasing ambience. Presentation is also up to the usual high standard we have come to expect from BIS. This is an impressive achievement and makes a fitting appendix to Vänskä’s acclaimed Sibelius recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that this recording is now also available as part of an unmissable 4-disc set of all the Sibelius Symphonies from Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Sibelius: 7 Symphonies - Vänskä.
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