LSO in New York – Sibelius

Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49
Kullervo, Op.7

Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Raimo Laukka (baritone)

Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 30 September, 2005
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

For the second of the LSO’s three New York performances, Sir Colin Davis chose music by Jean Sibelius, a composer he has been closely associated with during his long career.

Both works are based on the Finnish national epic, the “Kalevala”: the symphonic fantasy Pohjola’s Daughter, and the rarely performed Kullervo.

On his way home from the Northland, the hero Vainamoinen meets Pohjola’s daughter, who demands that he perform ever more difficult tasks in order to win her. When he finally fails to build a boat from the splinters of her spinning wheel, he is forced to renounce his quest and leave. Starting softly with only low chords in the bassoons and horns, a cello solo (expertly performed by Tim Hugh) introduces the hero in the vast loneliness of the North. Sir Colin went on to unfold the story with all the atmospheric and dramatic details of this expressive score, from the mockery of the girl, to the frantic efforts of the hero, and his final failure. The drive to the powerful climax was inexorable, and the short coda a perfect counterbalance to the beginning.

Kullervo is Sibelius’s first major work, premiered under the 26-year-old composer’s baton in 1892. A great success at the time, it immediately established him as a major musical figure, the creator of a Finnish nationalistic style of composition. Ever self-critical, however, he soon withdrew the work, except for one performance of the third movement in 1935. It was not heard again in its entirety until 1958, the year after his death, and received its first recording in 1970 under Paavo Berglund. The five sections of the work tell the tragic story of Kullervo, who believed himself to be the last member of his clan, who was raised in the home of his enemies, and is consumed with feelings of hate and vengeance.

The ‘Introduction’ serves as a general description of Kullervo, the second movement is entitled ‘Kullervo’s Youth’, and throughout both one can detect distinct traces of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, which he had recently heard in Vienna, of Wagner’s influence and of folk elements, while at the same time his own distinctive style – the string ostinatos, the great surges of sound, a certain tone-color – is already very much in evidence. The core of the piece is the 25-minute ‘Kullervo and his Sister’, where, accompanied by insistent orchestra ostinatos, the unison men’s chorus starts narrating the story in 5/4 meter: Kullervo has been sent out to collect taxes, comes across a beautiful woman and seduces her, only to find out that she is his long-lost (unnamed) sister.

Three times the chorus is interrupted by short, almost operatic interchanges between the siblings, leading up to the depiction of the actual deed in a passionate statement from the orchestra. Laments of the sister (who kills herself in shame) and of Kullervo bring this movement to a close. Monica Groop gave a gripping performance of the sister’s initial reluctance and final despair, and Raimo Laukka, after a slightly tenuous beginning, summoned all his powers to deliver Kullervo’s raging against fate. Depicting his going into battle in the subsequent movement, the music seems oddly cheerful, ending in a big climactic section of repeated chords.

The male chorus, aptly dressed in black shirts, takes on a prominent role again in the last movement, ‘Kullervo’s Death’. In sections of unison and harmony the singers recount how, having come across the very spot of the infamy, Kullervo has a dialogue with his sword, and finally falls upon it. At the very end, the men of the LSO chorus, who had distinguished themselves, put aside their scores and delivered the last stanza from memory with all their power, a spine-chilling finale which brought the audience to its feet.

“Kullervo” is a work that places great demands not only on the vocalists but also on the orchestra throughout its 75 minutes or so. The strings have long stretches of measured tremolos, of ostinatos and of fast scale passages, the woodwinds are hardly spared either, and the brass players are challenged in matters of difficulty and endurance. The London Symphony Orchestra distinguished itself in all sections. Timpanist Nigel Thomas deserves special mention for his artistry, which must be among the most physically demanding parts in the literature. The real star of the evening, however, was Sir Colin Davis. From first note to last he imbued both works with the atmosphere of the great North and the power and tragedy of the Finnish epic, never slipping into sentimentality, never losing sight of the overall structure, while conducting a most energetic and passionate performance.

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