Passion, Incest, Torment and Suicide in the Royal Albert Hall: Kullervo at the Proms

30/08/2015

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Prom 58: Sibelius, Johanna Rusanen-Kartano (soprano), Waltteri Torikka (baritone), Polyteknikkojen Kuoro, BBC Symphony Chorus (men’s voices), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.8.2015 (RB)

Sibelius En Saga
Kullervo

 

This was my third Sibelius 150 concert this Prom season (Prom 42; Prom 43 – Symphonies 1 and 2 are reviewed here). As it turns out I was hearing the two works live for the first time after forty or so years of being pursued by Sibelius. Berglund’s Bournemouth (not Helsinki) Kullervo on EMI Classics was my initiation but I have heard most of the other recorded versions over the years apart from the very limited circulation 1950s LPs from Jussi Jalas — who has heard this? This Kullervo was conducted by one of today’s most refreshingly adventurous conductors: Sakari Oramo who last year conducted Alwyn’s First Symphony at Prom 36.

The Kullervo story is steeped in youth, passion, rape, incest, remorse, torment, war and suicide. It is an early work – so what? – and teems with inventive ideas and memorable melodic material. In the depths of negation and despair during the 1910s Sibelius wrote that, in his youth, musical ideas flowed in cornucopiac profusion. They had to be controlled rather than striven for or cultivated.

This is a work of Mahlerian length (75 minutes) in five movements of which three are purely orchestral and two (III and V) include vocal parts. The third movement, which is the most propulsively dynamic, also boasts a male voice choir and what amounts to an operatic duo (Kullervo and his sister) while the fifth movement is for the choir and orchestra.

Like Lemminkäinen, Kullervo springs in rowdy, magical, irrepressible, macho exultation from the pages of the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. The story centres in Parts III and V on the double tragedy of Kullervo, who eventually discovers that the woman he has raped is in fact his sister. She commits suicide and so does he eventually. Best not scrape the surface of the morality too deeply. The same might be said of many an un-doctored non-Disneyfied legend/fairy tale.

There was a slightly smaller audience than for the other two Proms I had attended. I noticed quite a few empty spaces in the gallery and circle. In common with Osmo Vänskä for my last Sibelius Prom (symphonies 5-7) Oramo split the orchestra’s violins left and right. Oramo’s podium style fell between the minimalism of Volkov (Prom – symphonies 3 and 4) and the wide ranging exuberant physicality of Vänskä.

Various things struck me about this Kullervo. In the first movement I noted an excitingly propulsive chatter contrasting with the shudderingly tragic ‘long march of Everyman’ in the second. Echoes of birdsong play a lead role in all five movements and these woodwind voices kindle driving rhythms, including Oramo’s very italicised, trudging march at the end of the second movement: great deeds are afoot. That conclusion includes darkly imperious brass writing that speaks of inimical fate in much the same way that similar writing arches over Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The third movement – part flaming operatic scene, part oratorio-style commentary on the action and part orchestral tone-poem – gripped me in a way that had me forgetting to make contemporaneous notes.

Many impressions remain. Two magnificent singers who acted their roles in a way that reached out and held the audience. What a verismo opera Sibelius would have written had his inspiration and circumstances been different. Notable were the French horns underpinning the powerfully and gloriously steady voice of Johanna Rusanen-Kartano. There were so many impressive moments but I shall not soon forget the way she sang and acted her character’s shamed outrage. The tall and gaunt Torikka ran the gamut from strutting arrogance to craggy miscreant nobility itself with arm gestures. His convincing physical mien extended to holding his head in his hands when he sat down after the moment of discovering what he had done to his sister. The choir, singing in hugely impressive unison, stomped, thundered and whispered. What a language Finnish must be to sing. At the end of this movement – and the next – the great chordal cries were redolent of the hammer-blows that close the Fifth Symphony. After such excoriating drama the fourth movement amounts to a marvellous chivalric paean to war rather than anything ragingly violent. It is more akin to Elgar’s Froissart with a joyous brass dialogue along the way. The last movement has the return of the choir but everything is now reduced to a cold and quiet shiver. The effect around Kullervo’s suicide is of ghostly shrouds and wisps of wraiths rising like smoke. Strangely enough it reminded me at this point of several ‘supernatural’ passages in Martinů’s Epic of Gilgamesh.  Once again the silence with which the piece ends was honoured by an audience that were with Oramo every step of the way.

In the first half of the concert Oramo conducted the BBCSO in En Saga – another early work. Without direct links with the Kalevala this piece vividly captures the excitement of the Nordic epics and even has an artfully accelerated whirlwind section that prefigures Tapiola – the latter a work also conducted by Oramo at Prom 47 on 21 August 2015. Ten or so years later Prokofiev in his First Violin Concerto must surely have learnt from the scoring of Sibelius’s creepy orchestral fantasy. Oramo made the most of the great spaces of the hall in tracing this work’s dicing with the silence from which saga and speech arises. At the close the viola principal Norbert Blume was quite justly among the members of the orchestra to take a bow.

The male voice choir for Kullervo was 140 strong, drawn from the all-male Finnish Polytech choir – known as PK) based at the Helsinki University of Technology and the BBC Symphony Chorus. The Polytech Choir will be tackling Kullervo again on 2 September 2015 at the Lahti-Sibelius Festival with the same soloists.

Rob Barnett

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