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Sibelius: Kullervo - Segerstam

Sibelius: Kullervo - Segerstam

Ondine  ODE 1122-5

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Sibelius: Kullervo Op. 7

Soile Isokoski (soprano)
Tommi Hakala (baritone)
YL Male Voice Choir
The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Leif Segerstam (conductor)


The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has a long and triumphant association with the music of Jean Sibelius, having premièred under the composer's baton almost all of his symphonic works. On this release, they perform, under their longstanding chief conductor Leif Segerstam, Sibelius's early choral symphony Kullervo. The work is based on the legend of Kullervo in the epic Kalevala, which tells the mythic history of the ancient Finns. The great success of the 1892 première in Helsinki - Sibelius conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic - turned out to be the breakthrough of the great Finnish composer's career who became a true national hero.

The sung parts in the third and fifth movement are performed by native speakers: the famous Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski whose Sibelius Orchestral Songs album on Ondine (featuring the Helsinki Philharmonic/Leif Segerstam) won both a BBC Music Magazine Disc of the Year Award and a MIDEM Classical Award in 2007; the acclaimed baritone Tommi Hakala, who won the 2003 BBC 'Singer of the World' award; and the internationally reputed YL Male Voice Choir, which in the year of this release looks back on 125 years of history and many commissions of Sibelius's best-known choral works.

Recorded in DXD, this hybrid SACD provides for an ecstatic sound experience of this haunting music. This release completes the acclaimed Sibelius Symphonies Cycle with Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, which was hailed as "a major Sibelius event" by ClassicsToday.com.

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - June 4, 2008

With this Kullervo, Segerstam brings his challenging and often revelatory Sibelius symphony cycle for Ondine to a close. He has the benefit of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra who have traversed the symphonic journey with him. Their forerunner, the Helsinki Orchestra Society, gave the first performance of the work under Sibelius in 1892. They are joined by the YL Male Voice Choir. Founded in 1883, this is the oldest Finnish-language choir in Finland. Sibelius himself wrote many of his pieces for male voice chorus for them and they are regarded as the leading performance authority for these works. With such strong performance traditions we might expect an exceptional exposition of Sibelius' epic, which remains the longest and most complex of his entire output.

This is an early work, and somewhat flawed by Sibelius' inexperience in handling large orchestral forces with singers. After all he was only at the beginning of his struggle to attain mastery of symphonic structure. Ever self-critical, he lost faith in the work and withdrew it less than a year after its première. Since the first commercial recording was made in 1970 by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conductors have themselves made some of editorial changes to the rawness of the orchestration, which the composer himself would undoubtedly have made after hearing more performances. Therefore the present day conductor plays a larger than normal part in both producing and directing Kullervo. While comparing three of the current (at the time of writing) four SACD versions movement by movement, I was astonished that sometimes the performances sounded almost like different works. Orchestral lines were more or less prominent and internal balances varied noticeably. There is as yet no "settled" performance practice for Kullervo, but such a tradition was something which Sibelius himself had little time for. Quizzed by Anthony Collins about ambiguous metronome marks and speed directions in his symphonies, Sibelius telegraphed in reply "Metronome marks difficult to follow. Conductor must have liberty to get performance living."

Of the three Kullervo versions under scrutiny, Davis (LSO) is generally the fastest, Spano (Atlanta S0) somewhat slower and Segerstam the most expansive. Conductors and performers are required to unerringly unfold the tragic drama of the Kalevala's tragic hero from his youth to a fated downfall in a single concentrated trajectory. Along the way, in true Wagnerian fashion, the orchestra becomes narrator and visualiser, with the work's unprecedented experimental orchestral colours and textures. In these requirements, the SACD recording makes an important contribution, and it is interesting to see how conductors have realised that the extra fidelity of this medium is now capable of conveying so much of the thrill and atmosphere of a live performance.

Regarding the present disc's recording quality, Ondine employed Editroom of Finland, who used a DXD capture and editing environment, downsampling to DSD for SACD production. At first hearing, I thought the orchestra was disappointingly distant, but giving my preamp plenty of gain brought out a superlatively realistic sound stage, with the listener in the mid-stalls of a spacious auditorium. In MC 5.0 there is a coherent and utterly convincing 'holosonic' image with no evidence of spot-mike zooming. Spatial positions of orchestral sections are easily identified, and there is even a sense of individual voices in the chorus, as well as subtle ambient responses from the auditorium. In stereo this of course collapses, but the stereo track is very well-engineered and somewhat more immediate. Soloists are beautifully balanced in front of the orchestra but behind the speakers, standing close together at half-left. Brass have plenty of air to blend and develop the characteristic Sibelian sound (which was just beginning to appear in this work) and the heavy brass, timpani and double basses are given exemplary depth of tone. A very fine sonic spectacular indeed, contributing in no small measure to the great emotional impact of Segerstam's reading.

The opening orchestral movement sets the scene and airs the Karelian runic chants, speech rhythms and elements of Karelian folk song that Sibelius uses for his story. Segerstam takes us into a world of billowing mist and cloud, with epic-sounding horn calls announcing the main Kullervo motive. It really feels like an ancient legend is unfolding and is even more atmospheric than the rival versions. This movement has a great epic sweep, with thrilling dynamic surges, Segerstam managing seamless transitions between episodes as far as the composer's inexperience allows. The 'mad' oboe solo with its many repeated notes is done splendidly and sounds perfectly natural in the movement's context, as it comes to rest duetting with the trumpets in a way which I have not noticed before. There are primordial under-currents of tragedy, elementally raw grinding rhythms on tuba and double-basses, and the dynamic timpani fusillades sound from the back of the orchestra in perfect balance and tone. Segerstam's final blazing climax is implacable and trenchant, mirroring the drama to come.

Kullervo's Youth is portrayed in the second movement. Here, Segerstam takes 5:29 longer than Davis and 5:08 longer than Spano. If you play the Helsinki version immediately after either of the others, it sounds decidedly slow, but in its own context it seems perfectly paced, as the naturally applied complex rhythmic pulses change with the unfolding story. The Helsinki muted strings play their opening lullaby as though it were a cushion of goose-down, but behind their soft tone is the insistent stabbing rhythm which foretells loneliness and dark Fate. The movement progresses with much subtle and superbly played orchestral colour, the Helsinki woodwind players in particular on top form in mimicry of solo bird songs and choruses. Segerstam pays notable attention to Sibelius' use of dissonance and the music is not allowed to wander; a certain tense or foreboding atmosphere is retained and momentum sustained. Brutal brass chords burst forth near the end, announcing the return of the lullaby theme on the pulsing string section. Segerstam and his team have now prepared us for the keystone of Sibelius' dramatic arch.

The third movement, Kullervo and his Sister, is presented by Sibelius as an operatic scena which forms the climax of the work. Segerstam and the orchestra set the scene as Kullervo travels on his luxurious sledge across winter wastes amidst. This is buoyant music which glitters and sparkles. Thankfully, the triangle is kept well to the back of the sound picture, as in some other performances it almost dominates the orchestral texture. Then the YL Chorus enters as epic-sounding narrators with foot-tapping runic chanting of the Kalavala verses describing Kullervo 'with his blue stockings'. They immediately sound authoritative and are generally more flexible in phrasing and nuanced dynamics than many other choruses. Segerstam uniquely brings well forward the chugging cross-rhythms and telling countermelodies which underpin the voices. This is an inspiring and marvellous effect, and the Helsinki bass and cello sections play as if possessed.

From the first few bars of his entry, Tommi Hakala makes us realise he is a Kullervo with a difference. Instead of being the one-dimensional black-hearted hero so often encountered, he presents us with a character who is fully human and quite self-aware. This is vivid operatic acting, with much tonal variation and subtly-nuanced word painting, drawing the listener further into the drama than usual. Having spied a fair maid along his route, he stops and invites her into his sledge. Here we meet Soile Isokoski, who already has given us an excellent account of Luonotar with Segerstam (Sibelius: Luonnotar, Orchestral Songs - Soile Isokoski). Isokoski also humanizes her Kalevala character and the duo's interactions are subtle and dynamic; they sing to, rather than at, each other. She spits out venomous riposts to Kullervo's invitation, managing the rapid-fire vituperation with astonishing articulation and changes in tone - a tour de force, where most of the other mezzos struggle just to get the torrent of words out in time. Brushing aside this utterly withering reply, the ever-confident Kullervo wheedles her into his caparisoned and luxurious sled, and shortly thereafter ensue 53 orchestral bars which amount to one of the most vivid and erotic depictions of sexual intercourse in music. There was no precedent for this sort of graphic realism in Finnish music at the time Sibelius was writing. Emmy Achté, the first soloist to sing the Sister's role, even years afterwards, remarked on the shocking realism of her part. Most conductors manage this climactic section very well; perhaps Spano encourages his trumpets to go a little over the top, cheapening the eroticism somewhat, but Segerstam, a man of naturally flamboyant character, handles the whole scene with a raw and primal vitality.

In her long post-coital soliloquy, Isokoski has more time to develop her characterisation as she tells Kullervo her life story. This is a very difficult section for interpreters, as the runic poets managed to telescope the maid's biography with the realisation that she is Kullervo's sister. Isokoski, however, conveys a gamut of emotions including vulnerable naiveté, longing and sadness, and smoothly builds to the climax, where the extent of her degradation finally dawns on her. This Sister is thus much more than the traditional harridan-like Ice Queen as she is often depicted. She finally commits suicide before Kullervo, and Tommi Hakala as Kullervo curses himself and his parents for giving him birth in an anguished passage, full of self-loathing and guilt, spectacularly portrayed in the orchestra.

The instrumental fourth movement, Kullervo goes to War, portrays his campaign against the uncle who killed his parents (whom he discovered on returning home after his encounter with his sister). "Making music/ to a fight making merry" is how the Kalevala describes it. This movement therefore acts as the scherzo in Sibelius' symphonic scheme, and provides some relief between two movements of darkness and high drama. Davis, Spano and Segerstram pace this within a few seconds of one another, but Davis seems rather perfunctory compared with the more vivid and colourful readings of the other two. It is Segerstam who brings home the point that when conceiving and writing Kullervo, Sibelius was in Vienna, studying Bruckner and Wagner. The similarities to a Bruckner scherzo are unmistakeable, as Segerstam's slightly faster and more fleet-footed movement gains power and dynamism in its progress, with brass choruses of true sonorous Brucknerian intensity. An odd characteristic of the score here are the many interruptions of the main theme by outbursts of trills from the woodwind, which are dealt with slightly uncomfortably by many conductors and orchestras. Segerstam, however, simply fits the trills into the general flow, so they act as punctuating supernatural portents as reminders of his guilty past.

The work's finale returns to the main story, as the miserable and guilt-tormented Kullervo returns to the site of his sister's violation and commits suicide by flinging himself on his sword. Davis dispatches this in 9:46, Spano in 10:14 but Segerstam takes his time at 12:41, and has no problems stretching the tension to its final crisis point. The YL Chorus narrate Kullervo's end with a cold-hearted and black-toned judicial style, emphasising how all Nature is offended by his unnatural act. Segerstam conjures eerie bird cries, earth grumbles, wind swirls and other shamanistic sounds from the orchestra. Earlier themes are revived from other movements, especially the opening horn theme from the first movement, which reaches an apocalyptic climax as the sword finds its mark in Kullervo's heart.

There is no doubt in my mind that this Kullervo from Segerstam and his team is exceptionally fine and in the first rank of the ever-growing list of recordings. Spano's deeply thought and excellently performed account would also merit a first ranking. But I find Segerstam to have produced the most psychologically realistic Kullervo performance, thanks to the depth of characterisation uncovered by Hakala and Isokoski in the seemingly unpromising and dificult texts of the Kalevala verses. Segerstam comes close to Berglund's powerful first recording from 1970, which allowed many of us to encounter this unforgettable work. The state-of-the art fidelity of Ondine's engineering is a great advantage in itself. While quintessentially Finnish, Ondine's production nevertheless fulfils Sibelius' intent to make this music universal in appeal. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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