0 of 5 stars

Kullervo, Op.7

Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Mattei (baritone)

Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded in the Barbican Centre, London on 18 September & 9 October 2005

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: February 2006
Duration: 72 minutes

Is Sibelius’s Kullervo, the work that effectively launched the composer’s career, a symphony or symphonic poem? The exterior of LSO Live’s presentation omits any designation, though the inside of the booklet opts for “Symphonic poem for soloists, chorus and orchestra”. Although Sibelius famously withdrew Kullervo after its first performance, he was not ashamed to include it alongside his seven numbered symphonies and the Lemminkäinen Legends when, in later life, clarifying his having composed nine symphonies.

It was Paavo Berglund who made the first recording of Kullervo – for EMI in 1970 – since when the work’s discography has grown, albeit at a modest rate. Sir Colin Davis has recorded it before, also with the LSO and Chorus, now part of RCA’s “Complete Collections” series, with the remaining symphonies and other orchestral works. That performance was characterised by a degree of deliberation, which sometimes suggested non-apposite caution in music that definitely needs a sense of on-going propulsion – whatever the tempo.

This live LSO reading (a composite of two concerts and, presumably some patching from the dress rehearsal) has the requisite sense of forward flow, and the music unfolds with impressive inevitability, with the odd moment of structural difficulty or hesitation barely registering.

Indeed, the first of the five movements has a welcome impetuosity about it – the bold hero striding forth with determination, always moving on. Thus this movement, which does not really ‘develop’ in the conventional symphonic sense, is not allowed to linger unduly. On the way, one can admire the splendid playing of the LSO – majestic brass, colourful woodwinds, and sweeping strings – being led by conducting of commitment and conviction.

‘Kullervo’s Youth’ – in effect the slow movement – is well-realised, the ‘Grave’ tempo indication being duly noted, though without, it should be said, any sense of the ponderous. Davis builds the music to a powerful and inevitable climax, over which trumpets shine triumphantly. There is one curious spot, which I take to be a recording anomaly, whereby both strings and horns sound unnaturally close to one another. Elsewhere, a judicious recorded balance is largely evident.

The dramatic heart of Kullervo lies in the third movement, where symphonic poem/symphony becomes a cantata, with the dramatic encounter between Kullervo and the woman who, fatally, turns out to be his sister. The unusual 5/4 metre must have seemed strange indeed to the work’s first hearers, and Davis conveys the volatility of both rhythms and tempos, and encourages a vivid orchestral response. The men of the London Symphony Chorus deliver their narrative with impressive, implacable tone. One or two pronunciation infelicities are not too troubling in the general context. Monica Groop is fine, whether spitting invectives at her would-be abductor, or reminiscing about being lost in the forest with a touching poignancy. At the live performance I attended – that of 9 October – Peter Mattei became indisposed at the end of this movement and was unable to deliver Kullervo’s lament, which concludes it.

On disc, he projects appropriate vehemence at this point, and his consistently youthful tone is not an unattractive quality. Also, orchestral balance with the solo voices, as recorded, is better than it was live and Davis again impresses with his handling of the various episodes of this long movement – revealing that Sibelius had operatic potential, should he have chosen to have followed that path.

I prefer the subsequent movement – the alla marcia ‘Kullervo goes to battle’ – to be a little more headlong than Davis chooses, but his tempo allows for telling orchestral detail to register. In the dark finale, ‘Kullervo’s death’, the chorus is once more telling in its contribution, producing powerful tone in its final, climactic, declamation. I’m not sure that, on the final chord, a sudden forte-piano and big crescendo is really what is called for. Without access to a full-score (only the third movement is widely published) it is difficult to tell; it is a gesture untypical of the composer and is not on any other recorded performance of which I am aware.

Nevertheless, whilst I retain a fondness for Berglund’s pioneering performance (currently in an EMI budget box set containing, like Davis’s RCA, the numbered symphonies alongside other works), at LSO Live’s budget price, this reading of impressive integrity is not one to be passed by.

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