A Rare Performance of Kullervo in a Concert Dedicated to Kurt Sanderling

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brahms, Sibelius: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano), Jukka Rasilainen (bass-baritone), Orphei Drängar (male chorus), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.9.2011

Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, op. 77 (1878)
Jean Sibelius: Kullervo, op 7 (1892)

Kullervo has always been considered something of an oddity. In some respects it is Sibelius’s choral symphony, since movements three and five are settings of lines from the epic poem Kalevala; in other respects it is a tone poem, because the remaining movements chronicle parts of Kullervo’s life. Although the first performance in 1892 was enthusiastically received, there were only four more performances in the composer’s lifetime; Sibelius withdrew it, and towards the end of his life intended revising the whole work, but in the event re-orchestrated only the final section of the third movement in 1957.  Kullervo had to wait until 1971 for its first recording, by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The composer was a mere twenty-seven; it was another six years before he tackled his First Symphony. Yet there is much in Kullervo to indicate where Sibelius was heading. Characteristically short woodwind phrases, passionate string melodies frequently in octaves, clarinets swooping and diving, strident hammer-blow tutti chords, plentiful atmospheric string tremolos and other effects, solid hymn-like brass passages, long pedal notes with slowly increasing tension – all these are here and much more besides. It’s a feast of dramatic orchestral colour! One might find the text, displayed by surtitles on this occasion, a little pedantic, but what is important here is that it is set with absolute conviction, and Finnish conviction at that. Sibelius was expressing intense pride in his native Finland, by means of a text (to which he was subsequently to return) in the Finnish language, at a time when the country was dominated by Russia, and Swedish was the official language. So the emergence of nationalist sentiment is crucially important in appreciating Kullervo, the story of a mythological character with magical powers who falls from grace, seduces a woman who turns out to be his sister, and eventually commits suicide.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is obviously on home territory with this score, and it was impossible not to be carried along with the performance from beginning to end. If he has occasionally been described as “cool” there was certainly no evidence of it here, and this was an absolutely terrific performance; the Philharmonia was faultless and the Orphei Drängar male chorus, flown in from Sweden, simply stunning. Monica Groop and Jukka Rasilainen, from Finland, had to stand with nothing to do for long periods but when their moments came, they too were well matched for their roles, even if the vocal writing for the soloists is perhaps not the strongest aspect of the score. Rasilainen was particularly convincing in the moments of self-hate when he bemoans the shame he has brought on his whole family to the accompaniment of some wonderfully Sibelian crashing chords. Stirring stuff!

Prior to the main items on the agenda, Salonen paid a heartfelt tribute to the late Kurt Sanderling, who was associated with the Philharmonia for many years. He dedicated the concert to the great conductor, describing Sanderling’s performances as being “the truth,” a sentiment which I heartily endorse; it was in this very hall some years ago that Sanderling first opened my eyes and ears to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, in one of the most memorable, moving and thankfully un-showy performances I have ever experienced. It was entirely fitting that Salonen and the Philharmonia treated us to an extra item – Melisande’s death from Sibelius’s Pelleas and Melisande, in which we admired the beautiful pianissimo of the muted strings.

Viktoria Mullova’s reading of the Brahms concerto was absolutely note perfect, and her tone was gloriously warm or bright by turns. This was a consummately brilliant performance, the Philharmonia complementing the soloist with sympathy and some totally appropriate Germanic solidity. If it didn’t quite raise the roof, I’m not quite sure why not, for all the right ingredients were there, and I wouldn’t like to give the impression this was less than highly enjoyable and, in the slow movement, touching. And, all in all, this was a fabulous evening and a great start to the Philharmonia’s new season.

Christopher Gunning