THE PREMIERE of this huge work was given in Helsinki, on April 1892, Sibelius conducting. It was an enormous success for the young composer : "He had created music of great originality and individuality in his very first major effort. True, the influence of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and others was unmistakable. Though no flawless masterpiece, it has imposing dark roughness full of sparks of genius." The work is at once ancient and contemporary. It has a distinctive, archaic tonal quality comprising elements foreseeing the mature Sibelius---and beyond. Perhaps that is why Kullervo was---and still is---a timeless work, sounding pristine and refreshing for a nation then on a quest for its own identity. The work boldly used the Finnish language as its backbone at a time when Finland's culture and sovereignty were still at risk by the powerful influence of neighboring countries. Glenda Dawn Goss also remarks that "a closer examination shows numerous forces at work, not only in Finland but also across Europe, that formed the essential backdrop to Sibelius's breakthrough composition. [It is interesting] to explore the literary, artistic, social and political circumstances that provided the fertile soil from which the explosive Kullervo sprang." The work (and its imageries) mingles fiction with reality and is acting like a mirror in respect to its time and place. ''Despite its successful premiere, the ever self-critical Sibelius withdrew it from the world and only allowed the third movement to be performed in celebration of the centenary of the publication of the Kalevala in 1935. The work was not performed in its entirety until 1958, and received its first recording only in 1970 under Paavo Berglund''. Whether Sibelius feared that later revisions to the score would alter it too much or simply ruin its mythic nature is unclear. Only at the very end of his life did he consider a revision to the score which, obviously, never took place.
Kullervo is an episode from the Kalevala (which means `Land of Heroes') ; the score was sketched by Sibelius (while in Vienna) in the early 1890's and is based on the poetry and folk legends of his native Finland. According to Kimmo Korhonen and the Finnish Music Information Centre, "although he never used actual folk tunes in his music, Sibelius was influenced by the older Eastern tradition, with which he had become acquainted for instance through the singing of the famous Ingrian runo singer Larin Paraske". This facet of Kullervo is important because it denotes a strong source of inspiration for the composer, also determining many later works to some extent. According to Karl Ekman's pioneering biography, however, Sibelius created the work before being actually in touch with the Karelian runic tunes. So, if we are to believe the composer's testimony, most of the music at that time was sort of intuitive and drawn from his creative genius and, thus, coming from assimilative processes of inspiration. It seems interesting to note that some sources, including the Biographical Centre of the Finnish Literature Society, located in Helsinki, insist that "Jean Sibelius visited the runic singer Larin Paraske in Porvoo at the end of November---or early December---1891 and listened to her dirges." Also mentioned is the fact that "perhaps he also asked Paraske to sing a poem or two about Kullervo, as he was himself just then composing his own stuff about the same subject." Comments vary and there seem to be no clue about the exactness of the time line of events. The interesting notes by Andrew Barnett (for this album) also observe that "numerous themes and motifs in Kullervo show the influence of runic melody, although such melodies are not quoted directly". Is it no coincidence that the work has such evocative powers since it is infused by very old incantations? Identically, it seems interesting to note a curious affinity which connects that early work with the dusky landscape of Nightride and Sunrise and also with the vision of forests found many years later in Tapiola. In some ways Sibelius has gone full circle : The spell is broken. Years ago, i wrote a paper (unpublished) on the subject of magic of words and mystic in poetry and i can assert that most of it would fit with the substance of the Kalevala. Writer David J. Davies sums it up precisely when he writes that "poetry is magic ; its recitation is an incantation born out of paganism and shamanism." Richard Impola's book 'Words of Wisdom and Magic from the Kalevala' (essay and translation) tells us that "a characteristic of much Finnish literature is its emphasis on capturing in words the very feel of life itself. Most epics deal with war and heroic deeds. The Kalevala does include such adventures, but the poem is unique among epics in the range of subject matters it embraces. Despite the exoticism of its setting and the shamanist mysticism of some of its content, a reader often has the feeling of being closely in touch with a life we can all relate to." Those remarks could also apply to Sibelius's masterful music for Kullervo.
This orchestral epic is a genuine choral symphony (at least in part) and, indeed, it is often associated with tone poems---a good reason this is tagged as a "symphonic poem". It is, as well, in a direct link with works such as Tulen synty ('The Origin of Fire') and the Four Legends. The story of Kullervo is the rather dark adventure of a tragic fate (in a Shakespearian sense). I'll quote an article from the Guardian Unlimited (UK) : ''Sibelius explores the edges of the Wagnerian operatic world that fascinated him as a young composer. The story is profoundly Wagnerian too : Kullervo falls in love with a girl he encounters in the woods and seduces her, only to discover that she is his long-lost sister. She kills herself, and he goes off to war to escape his guilt, only eventually to kill himself too''. The texts behind this music by Jean Sibelius are somber. The "gruesome, bloody battles" between two ancient tribes, the images of guilt, despair and suicide, and the doomed conclusion to Kullervo might seem repulsive at first. However, the music sparkles like a sudden light coming out of a dark room ; the result might sound more like hope than despair. Because the conclusion is so tragic, one can easily forget the translucent beauty of the melodies, the subtleties and contrasts lost and found within such a fascinating score.
The nationalist context linked to this early work is undeniable (the same is true of 'Finlandia', often seen as Sibelius's patriotic hymn). Still, there's more than merely nationalistic visions. Basically, the phenomenon goes beyond. Kullervo is a journey, a journey that portrays the story of a soul, but also a story of survival---a Tale of life and death---where a dire fate comes to an end in a culmination of hate and vengeance. One way or another, the work seems to portray vividly an example of love/hate relationship. In the denouement, it's as if the main character is nearly driven on the verge of a neurosis. The crisis isn't just individual : It is a reflection of the vulnerabilities of mankind. In fact, this chef-d'oeuvre deals with some of humanity's great concerns and ruminations. Many of the themes in Kullervo bring to mind how "current" it might be. There's an Oedipean quality in the tribulations and conflicts which permeate the texts (and the story is also vaguely reminiscent to Hamlet). Thus, the powerful, and eminently universal, nature of the Kalevala was naturally suitable for music. Kullervo contains passages merged with the characteristic Sibelian grandeur we usually find in some of, if not all, the seven symphonies.
The Introduction bears a confidence akin to 'Finlandia', but i still find this gorgeous instrumental theme to Kullervo ''more universal'' in its chant. No wonder the work had such a profound effect and, as a result, a big impact upon the listeners in 1892. Purposefully or not, the composer did transmit to his work the touch of a freshly inherited cultural background further magnified during his student days in Vienna. Those are plausible reasons, besides the Kalevala, as to why the work sounded so unique in its heyday. Throughout this long work (more than 80 minutes on this disc) we can hear the echoes of some Slavic-like themes (more or less analogous to pre-Russian folk music) : Tchaikovsky or Borodin. Still, Kullervo has the epitomic quality of being "authentic" Sibelius. Satoru Kambe tells us a bit more about the Introduction in 'Growth Process with Variable Manipulations - Sonata Form Structure of the Introduction of Kullervo' : "In the first, second, fourth, and fifth movements of Kullervo, Sibelius inventively uses traditional formal schemes such as `sonata,' `rondo,' and `ternary' designs. This procedure partially settles the aesthetic conflict, by reconciling nationalistic ideas with traditional symphonic styles. In the third movement, however, the setting of lines from the myth creates a peculiar form, in which the composer displays a stronger sense of the dramatic. [...] The work clearly demonstrates the young composer's highly symphonic conception of musical form. [...] On a technical level, one of the most significant devices that integrate the formal conception of Kullervo is the principle of variation. The latter is an essential device for constructing both Western art music and the rune melodies of folk music. Sibelius adapts the variation principle in realizing the creative impulse of Kullervo." I perfectly agree with a reviewer for Amazon that "the hallmarks of later, mature Sibelius are already in evidence throughout (runic inspired melody, ostinato rhythms, woodwind melodies in thirds, with a widespread use of triplets)." Vanska goes for a softer sound than is usual, at the very opening, but soon his orchestra floods in full rapture. This movement is hymnic in quality. Bruce Hodges, describing a concert of the work for MusicWeb's Seen and Heard, wrote : "The introductory Allegro moderato is as stirring as a hymn, with a sensuous Sibelian shimmer, albeit a bleak one. [...] Folk-oriented melodies soon appear, eventually threading through the entire work."
The second part depicts the youth of the hero. After the epic scale of the Intro, the slow movement flows with clever continuity. I agree with some people's comments that it's much like a lullaby (a sort of "berceuse"). The cadence is persistent and almost hypnotic. Here is what is closest musically to the Bachelardian themes of slumber and repose (Gaston Bachelard in `Poetics of Reverie' or `Water and Dreams'). For me, much of the movement is like a delicate suggestion of dusk, evening or night---with the occasional soft sounds of birds, shivery streams and forest trees. That's only a personal view, the music having obviously more complex and "deep meanings" than any subjective interpretation can do justice. By any means, 'Kullervo's Youth' seems much like the antithesis of the dynamic fourth movement. The elements of peace are, however, somewhat disturbed by undercurrents of austere prescience. This movement alone contains a few examples of the most beautiful music made by the composer. To quote David Hurwitz, "the second movement is a masterpiece that at a stroke reveals Sibelius as a major voice." His melodic timbres have depth and the easy flow of the work makes for rarely heard naturalness, here shaped with grace and conviction.
The central section ('Kullervo & his sister') opens the landscape of a vibrant, moving northern ethos. Acting as the centrepiece the movement is like a counterweight and is the longest, going at about the length of the Seventh Symphony. It presents the characteristics of a cantata, as does the last movement, although the orchestral section is more prominent than usual in a cantata (as J.S. Bach could demonstrate). The vocals highlight the narrative of that work. The soloists, Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo soprano) and Raimo Laukka (baritone), are outstanding. Laukka is excellent, although he does not equal Jorma Hynninen at his finest for sheer intensity and vocal depth. His voice has the required "heroic" tone, robust, dark and moderately profound---exactly in the range of the renown Peter Mattei. Paasikivi has a very fine voice too. In my opinion, she surpasses Marianne Rorholm (Salonen), though she does not quite possess the distinctive tenebrous timbre of Karita Mattila (Neeme Jarvi) nor does she gets to the same exalted heights as Soile Isokoski (Segerstam). Perhaps it would be safe to say that Paasikivi is a quite capable singer and rivals with the utterly excellent Monica Groop. Under Vanska the magnificent string tone and brass section of the Lahti Symphony unveil a sense of "live" music : This record is first-rate quality, possibly among the best on the label as pertains to sonics. The recording was done in the Sibelius Hall (city of Lahti), an example of new technology and modern wood construction, where acoustics were expertly designed by Artec Consultants of New York.
Choral parts are remarkably well-done by the Helsinki University Chorus (known as YL), no doubt the best choir in the world to sing this repertoire. I can't say what is the greatest among their numerous recorded performances, but i'm convinced that Vanska belongs to the top few. The coordination and "merging" of choral and orchestral blocs are executed seamlessly. The huge dynamic range provides a solid footing to this music. The recording venue also gives that sense of space one can feel (that sense of air needed to achieve a stereophonic illusion of "grands espaces" typical in Finnish landscapes). 'Kullervo goes to war' and the finale ('Kullervo's death') are simply glorious under Vanska. Fully in control of his musicians, Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska proves he's a master of the genre. In the 'goes to war' section, for instance, one can actually hear a distinctive, unobtrusive Russian-like tone---yet with just the right degree of vagueness. This is much like a sort of scherzo (sometimes also described as a freely-handled rondo), either rustic or modern in its musicality. It wears the clothes of a march and proceeds along with recurrent breaks in the shape of swift hovering motifs. It is an arduous movement to bring off, one in which the woodwinds play an important role. Still, no one---including Vanska---can beat the high energized version of the first Berglund recording (with that little extra boost in terms of lucidity and grandeur). There's a bit of truth in the argument of some people who say there Sibelius did really find "his own voice". The last movement begins quite like a requiem. The Intro---theme to the first movement---sorts of reappears toward the end, announcing the conclusion of this journey, but here it sounds gloriously distinctive and has greater power in its culmination. If there is anything similar to a march in the martial fourth movement, then the mourning finale contains what resembles a death march. Emotional depth is at the heart of this great music. Vanska, the Lahti orchestra and the choir are exemplary on all counts. A great ending to a great work.
The somewhat long pauses encountered during the course of the work might seem odd ; it must be said that Vanska, apparently, follows e-x-a-c-t-l-y the original score as it was intended by the composer. Timings are another interesting matter as well : At 80'34" the version under review is the second longest one, just under Colin Davis's first LSO recording with a duration of 80'59". Paavo Jarvi's ends at nearly 79 minutes, while Panula (on Naxos) closes at 72'34". As a contrast, Berglund's classic 1970 recording has a duration of 71'45", while Neeme Jarvi (on Bis) concludes at 68'49". Breitkopf & Hartel (original publishers of the score) suggest an average total time of 75 minutes (in order, roughly 13-16-25-10-11). My opinion is that timings alone do not necessarily mean "better" or "worse" as far as music is concerned. All the recordings i have mentioned, no matter the flexible timings, are at least reasonably good. The integrity of the work, its very raw nature or the fact that the score requires a certain level of comprehension (which also begs for a firm knowledge about the composer), is probably more to the point. Timings can reveal a different approach but, in the end, they do not determine, per se, the absolute qualities of a specific version. On that matter Vanska and the 1996 Davis take some parts more slowly than others but they certainly do not drag---they definitely do not lack intensity or verve, as fine versions go. The music has "drive" and, without being sedate, the more thoughtful passages are allowed to shine through. Vanska's account has a "mythic" quality which is not without its magnetic effect. It sounds so keenly climactic as to reinforce the valedictory quality, so to speak, of that singular work. The performance under review belongs to a few in the discography which succeed entirely in making clear that this is a primeval-imbued modern work of art. I'll refer to the BBC Music Magazine : "This unerringly paced and superbly recorded account with Osmo Vanska and the Lahti orchestra, together with two impressive soloists, [in which] Vanska conveys its power, its dramatic intensity and a marvelous sense of atmosphere. The best performances always leave you thinking what a wonderful score this is." In any case, each different interpretation adds something to the understanding and growing appeal of this previously underestimated masterpiece. Each recording conveys most of the depths and shadows of the legend, which isn't unlike the old sagas of the Vikings (Thor, Odin, etc.) although the contexts and storylines are, obviously, different.
In conclusion, it was---and still is---a stately moment in the history of music. I think Kullervo contains, perhaps, "the most beautiful music in the world"... Too bad the composer dismissed the work for some reasons. Kullervo was much more than just another early-stage work by a great composer : It was the promise of all the works to come and might be seen as the table of contents of a creative life. It doesn't mean the piece is flawless but overall it is neither clumsy nor amateurish. A text on sibelius.fi sums it up rather well : "Kullervo is at the same time a masterpiece and a baggy monster of a work, bursting at the seams. It is the King Kong of orchestral composition. Its brutality and massive size command fear and respect, yet it is at heart a romantic work." And what about the work on disc? According to David Hurwitz of Classics Today, ''There are no bad recordings of Sibelius' epic Kullervo Symphony, only good and a bit less so.'' That's absolutely right. On CD's, there are goods and greats : The budget price Naxos directed by Jorma Panula is recommendable as it is a finely made and enthusiastic performance, though ultimately not in the same league as the finest accounts. Paavo Jarvi (Virgin Classics) is quite probably the top performance next to Vanska and the second Segerstam, probably on par with Davis and Berglund. I do like, as well, the superb performances by Saraste and Salonen (both very good explorations of the work, and with the advantage of the great Hynninen). Segerstam has recorded Kullervo with Laukka (Chandos) in another significant, cutting-edge performance. The Danish orchestra brings some exquisite phrasings to the Sibelian world, with precise tempi and ambience, leading to a satisfying finale. Neeme Jarvi's take on the work (Bis) is equally a fine one---thanks primarily to a top notch Hynninen whose contribution is vital, along with Karita Mattila's forceful but never strained voice. The sound is towering. The Telarc recording by Spano, technically great, also has the benefit of an exceptional baritone. Personally, i'm not that enamored by Ari Rasilainen's version (CPO) which, unfortunately, falls a bit short in terms of soloists and vocal ensemble. As for Panula on Naxos, i think the strength of the CPO recording is to be found primarily at the orchestral part. For sure, that's a good account with some arresting moments (and fine sound, by the way) but it won't be a challenge to the finest in any way. And, last but not least, Paavo Berglund (two recordings, especially the first one which will remain the touchstone) and the classic Colin Davis (LSO Live) with some splendid singing and playing. With his two versions Davis offers readings that are not only dissimilar in duration but also in mood and breadth, although there's a correlation between both, such as Davis's steadily fine conducting and the LSO's somewhat distinctive "color of sound".
My reference is still the Vanska. His "no compromises" approach is stamped with prestige and grandeur. It is, i believe, a credible view of the work (not that other's aren't, of course, but Vanska's is special---and phenomenal---in many ways). I think his reading, while imperfect in minor areas, was---and still is---a step forward and, thus, can stand comparison with the powerful Paavo Berglund (solid interpretation, fine sound). As Jean Sibelius's kinship, Jussi Jalas was undoubtedly the greatest proponent the work has had prior to Berglund and the ensuing generations of conductors. So, if a paradigm is to be found then it is likely to be Jalas (recordings by Jalas are rather scarce though). The best discs will unmistakably reveal some, if not quite the whole picture, of Kullervo's magic (and tragic) world. This is the case here. Vanska's is a version against which all other Kullervos should be judged. *****