LSO – Kullervo Revisited

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

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

Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 9 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This programme had already been heard in the Barbican and in New York, so there was a surety and confidence of orchestral execution that was both re-assuring and impressive.

The varied sonorities of Pohjola’s Daughter were assuredly delivered, with some superb playing from the solo woodwinds and harp in particular, though I wasn’t so sure that the plush string sound – heavy and weighty – was altogether appropriate; I feel certain that a leaner sound would have been more apt.

The magnificent brass phrases were resplendently executed, even if the ‘largamente’ (broadly) marking for these was perhaps over-emphasised. Nevertheless, on its own terms, this was an extremely satisfying reading, the concluding wisps of string tone and, indeed, the solo cello near the start, reminding us that the desolation of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony was not far in the future.

The programme was uncertain as to whether Kullervo is a symphony or symphonic poem – both designations were given. Whatever its ‘label’, it was the work which effectively launched Sibelius’s career and brought him to prominence in 1892. If anything, it is something of a hybrid, rather like much of Berlioz’s output. Partly purely orchestral, and, in two movements, operatic in character, its five-movement structure can appear unwieldy.

Much has been made of the anticipations that Kullervo has of the more-mature composer, but it is more interesting for indicating the paths Sibelius chose not to follow. There are many instances of direct repetition that would not have been acceptable to the composer who preferred a more ‘classical’ path or who crafted more organic development.

Whatever the case, following its initial success, Sibelius withdrew the work and did not permit further performances save for a single hearing of the third movement in 1935, to celebrate the centenary of the publication of the “Kalevala”, the epic Finnish poem from which he drew so much inspiration. And as an old man he was not reticent in including Kullervo amongst his symphonic output. He stated that he had composed nine symphonies, citing Kullervo and the Lemminkäinen Legends alongside his seven numberedsymphonies.

Sir Colin Davis’s reading of Kullervo on this occasion was characterised by urgency and intensity, qualities somewhat lacking in his recorded version, which verged on the ponderous at times. One had the sense of embarking on a momentous journey, of striving forward, which was most welcome in the first two movements in particular.

This impetuous quality paid especial dividends in the third movement, which is the key to the whole. In it, the dramatic scenario is played out, from the stoic declarations from the male chorus to the exchanges between the soloists. I noted a number of deviations from the score in terms of dynamics and tempo gradations (only this movement is published), but the conductor’s decisions seemed apposite in the circumstances. The chorus was implacable in its delivery of the (largely) unison lines. Only those fluent in Finnish – and a pedant – would point out some minor deficiencies of pronunciation, in particular the difference between the ‘a’ and ‘ä’, but the chorus’s contribution was crucial to the success of this movement as a whole.

Davis could have aided his soloists by insisting on a more hushed orchestra. One of the criticisms of the first performance was that the solo singers were inaudible, and some passages are indeed awkwardly scored, but Davis could have elicited a less insistent accompaniment in places. Monica Groop was fine in her delivery, and her remembrance of her days in the forest (with orchestral illustration as evocative as anything in Wagner’s “Siegfried”) was poignant and expressive. Peter Mattei delivered his initial phrases with appropriate expression, but his attempt to execute Kullervo’s curse was curtailed by the fact that he sang the first phrase and then stopped.

What followed was embarrassing and awkward. Davis and the orchestra stopped, too. Mattei attempted to sing again but failed in the attempt. He exited on the grounds of seeking a glass of water. His third attempt failed and he claimed there was a problem with his throat.

Whatever the explanation – and one felt sorry for him – Mattei was unable to deliver the final section of the third movement.

Davis pressed on with the fourth movement, ‘Kullervo goes to battle’, but, understandably, the (appropriate) tension of the performance had disappeared. In any event – whether due to unexpected factors or not, the tempo was too slow and it was only towards the close that the requisite volatility was made manifest.

In the finale, a more hushed opening would have been desirable, but the chorus’s contribution was once again significant and, ultimately, Davis’s view of this remarkable score was confirmed in its integrity.

Whether or not Sibelius’s Kullervo is deserving of its inclusion in the ‘UBS Choral Masterworks Series’ – the choral contribution is, ultimately, minimal – might be a matter for debate; but it was instructive to experience Davis’s view of Sibelius’s early symphonic foray, which was characterised by heartfelt conviction and affection for a composer’s work for which he has always had a particular affinity.

Skip to content