Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49
Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Mattei (baritone)
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 18 September, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Sir Colin Davis’s ongoing ‘Indian summer’ with the LSO continued with this programme, the first of the new season and due to be taken to New York before returning to London for a further performance on 9 October. Don’t miss!
Kullervo may be a problem child, but it repays close attention. Drawn from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, the story concerns Kullervo who inadvertently commits incest with his sister and then, in a fit of remorse, and after going to war, turns his sword on himself. Similarly, the young Sibelius did his best to kill off the work, withdrawing it in 1893, a year after its first performance. The score probably survived only because Sibelius parted with the autograph score to the Kalevala Society when he was particularly hard-up after the 1914-18 war.
Kullervo can seem interminable, rather like one of those unending Swedish movies. However, Colin Davis clearly believes in it passionately, it didn’t outstay its welcome, and the LSO was born to play Sibelius, its sound clean and powerful. Indeed, Sibelius has formed part of the orchestra’s musical diet from its earliest days – first with Robert Kajanus, then through the LPs of the 1950s with Anthony Collins, memorable concerts with Maazel, and a further recorded cycle under Davis and with one ongoing for LSO Live, of which the current Kullervo will form a part.
At 75 minutes this was a comparatively swift but never hurried reading – in line with what Davis has done before and also swifter than a previous concert performance and his 81-minute RCA recording. What was particularly striking was Davis’s sense of structure. The centrepiece of the five movements is the extended ‘Kullervo and his Sister’, sung from memory by the imposing Peter Mattei and superb Monica Groop. The men’s choir takes a role similar to that of a Greek ‘chorus’, commenting in shocked horror as the unfolding tragedy is played out. What was especially notable here was the way Davis really managed to build inexorably towards this core moment from the slow-burn ‘Introduction’ and the hypnotic ‘Kullervo’s Youth’. The two final movements, ‘Kullervo goes to battle’ and ‘Kullervo’s death’, received equally compelling advocacy, tension held throughout and with some magnificently weighty orchestral playing and continued excellence from the gents of the LSO Chorus.
The evening had opened, a little late, with an almost equally remarkable performance of Pohjola’s Daughter, an expansive account that plumbed the work’s icy depths as well as its highs with equal success. Sibelius does not come better than this.