Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen – Sibelius’s Kullervo – Viktoria Mullova plays Brahms

Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite, Op.46: The Death of Mélisande [played in memory of Kurt Sanderling]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Kullervo, Op.7 [sung in Finnish with English surtitles]

Viktoria Mullova (violin)

Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano) & Jukka Rasilainen (bass-baritone)

Orphei Drängar

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 September, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2011-12 Season opened with a tribute to its recently late Conductor Emeritus, Kurt Sanderling. He enjoyed a 30-year relationship with the Philharmonia until his retirement in 2002. Sanderling died on 17 September just two days short of his 99th-birthday. Esa-Pekka Salonen (Principal Conductor) recalled Sanderling’s musical integrity and his avoidance of anything superficial – he was “respectful of tradition but novel at the same time…”. Hopefully the Philharmonia can now finally release, no doubt through Signum (its recording partner), the taping made of Sanderling’s final Philharmonia concert-performance, a revelatory and memorable Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony given on 21 September 2000. Meanwhile, in homage, Salonen and the Philharmonia selected from Sibelius’s music to Maeterlinck’s play – an apt choice for Sanderling was a distinguished interpreter of this composer’s music (he recorded the seven symphonies) and in September 1999 had conducted the Philharmonia in two magnificent performances of the Second Symphony. The musical honour was a dignified and moving rendition of ‘Death of Mélisande’ that exploited the most-hushed and inward of pianissimos, strings and winds entwining and becoming impassioned without being forced – suggesting the gravity of the Eroica’s Funeral March in the process – before fading to nothing and a long silence…

Viktoria Mullova. Photograph: viktoriamullova.comBrahms’s Violin Concerto began ponderously, Viktoria Mullova raising the stakes with her fiery and precise first entry. If Salonen and the Philharmonia didn’t always respond in kind, Mullova maintained her incisive, intense and lucid approach, such clarity (especially in Joachim’s cadenza) aided by not always using vibrato. Led by Gordon Hunt’s eloquent oboe, the opening of the slow movement found his wind colleagues in chamber-like dialogue and support, Salonen content to listen rather than directing. Mullova’s light-emitting utterance was without contrivance and her muscular and feline reading was completed with an athletic and articulate account of the finale.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingSibelius’s Kullervo, a symphonic poem in five movements (the same design as Mahler’s initial plan for his contemporaneous Titan that through various revisions became his four-movement First Symphony – and we know that these composers had very different views on what a symphony should be) was given a rare outing: maybe only the seventh in London in thirty years following a previous one from Salonen himself, two under Colin Davis and one each from Thomas Adès, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Osmo Vänskä. Kullervo has been recorded numerous times though, including by Salonen, Paavo Berglund’s pioneering version setting the yardstick for subsequent conductors.

From the Kalevala, the collection of Finnish legends, Kullervo is intent on revenging his father’s murderers and is travelling on his mission on a sledge. He meets a woman and wants her to join him. She refuses and he maintains his desire until her seduction – or rape – takes place. They then discover each other as brother and sister. She commits suicide and, following his going into battle, the remorseful Kullervo does the same. The everyday story of Finnish folk!

As music, Kullervo is a sprawling and uneven piece – 75 minutes here – yet it compels, inspires and haunts, and does so from the very opening when Kullervo’s brooding yet purposeful theme is presented. Salonen brought out the panoramic wildness and wilderness of this first movement finding its brazen rhetoric; then the soulful measure of the second one (‘Kullervo’s youth’), uneasy, expressive, even equine in rhythmic motion to conjure a vivid sense of narration. The large-scale, dramatic, cinematic even, central movement introduces the vocal element of the work, here the outstanding Monica Groop and Jukka Rasilainen who may have stood and delivered but made a veritable opera out of their roles. The tenors and basses (100-strong) of Orphei Drängar (from Sweden) were simply stupendous in their unanimous delivery of the music and in their linguistic dexterity as well as their collective tonal depth. What was less successful was the projected presentation of the translated prose – sometimes risible in English. We were advised that the hall’s lighting would be dimmed during the performance. This did not happen; add to which the lime-green words were pallid against the too-highly-placed bit of screen. Musically, though, the sense of theatre was thrilling.

The ‘Kullervo goes to battle’ section is curiously jaunty. Salonen’s bright and breezy approach underlined this if sometimes losing point in favour of swagger. In the finale, when Kullervo asks his sword for retribution and it turn on his master, the men’s voices powerfully told of Kullervo’s demise, the music re-visiting previous motifs, brass immolating Kullervo’s distinctive motto, which for once justified this group’s loudness although the players’ earlier stentorian delivery needed to be reined-in. The work blazed to its end to conclude an engrossing and impressive performance of music that Sibelius somewhat disowned as he pursued his symphonic goals of economy and concision. Nevertheless, he was able to introduce himself as a 27-year-old composer capable of large-scale thought full of individuality and imagination, and it was this youthful daring that shone through under Salonen’s committed and demonstrative direction, all the performers under his Sibelian spell.

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