Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Jorma Hynninen (baritone)
The Polytech Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 2 December, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Evidence of national dress indicated that this was not ’just another concert’, and so it proved on all levels. Finnish Independence Day has been marked before in London, most memorably by a blistering performance of Sibelius’s Kullervo by Sir Colin Davis in 1992. Indeed, this magnificently reckless work, its premiere in 1892 effectively launching both the composer’s career and the nationalist movement, is the ideal work for this commemoration: a Finnish Ma Vlast whose musical qualities can be appreciated by listeners of all nationalities.
Esa-Pekka Salonen has recorded the work in Los Angeles (Sony), and there’s no doubting his belief in the score. The so-called ’Introduction’, a full-scale sonata movement in itself, had the right brooding intensity and epic timelessness; the only reservation was Salonen’s excessive broadening of tempo for the reprise of the second main theme. ’Kullervo’s Youth’ was marred by fluctuations in pace which undermined the music’s trudging bleakness, though the transitions to the livelier second theme were atmospherically rendered, and there was real fervour to the heartfelt string cantilena after the central climax – a procedure that Sibelius would refine and intensify over thirty-five years.
The almost operatic drama of ’Kullervo and his Sister’ brought out the best in everyone. Jorma Hynninen has lost little authority in a part he has sung – and recorded – on many occasions, not least in the searing rhetoric of Kullervo’s lament, while Monica Groop brought a moving plangency to the sister’s recounting of events leading to their fateful encounter. The male-voice Polytech Choir projected the unison syllabic word-setting with visceral immediacy. This and the final movement, ’Kullervo’s Death’, was a vivid reminder that this work is an act of defiance beyond even its dramatic limits. In between came the scintillating scherzo of ’Kullervo Goes to Battle’, here a little deadpan, until the martial closing pages brought a veritable rush of excitement. Salonen paced the finale superbly, making the most of the grinding dissonances which underpin the movement’s apex and its glowering coda – the work coming full circle as surely as the tragic ’hero’ meets his untimely end.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Kullervo is the sheer originality and raw imagination of the orchestral writing, Sibelius working intuitively in a medium he was to take to a new level of refined intensity. Something of these qualities is evinced by Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft, its premiere in 1985 launching an uncompromising iconoclast onto an unsuspecting public. Sixteen years on and Lindberg has similarly undergone a ’classicising’ process, his music gaining in harmonic richness and expressive clarity. Yet there’s an immediacy to Kraft that no older, wiser composer can hope to recapture, and its revival was well merited.
The stage layout is something in itself. Not only do the orchestral players frequently move to positions around the auditorium, the seven members of the experimental group Toimii often operate from percussion ’stations’ placed at strategic points in the hall. The whole apparatus is subjected both to live electronic manipulation and spatial diffusion, palpably realised here. Musically, a great deal happens over 28 minutes, though the unfortunate collapse of a gong frame onto a member of the audience brought home the ’dangerousness’ of the work a little too literally. And with the white-outfitted members of Toimii charging up and down the gangways like industrial terrorists from a scene in ’Brazil’ (Terry Gilliam’s 1983 film), listeners could be forgiven for thinking a musical ’happening’ rather than a coherent composition was taking place.
Yet Kraft is coherent, from the many-layered chordal complex that hurls itself forward at the outset, through sequences of ricocheting percussion and antiphonal instrumental exchanges, a central phase of translucent textures where ’spectral’ harmonic techniques come to the fore, and a closing accumulation of intensity brutally terminated by percussive fusillades. A triumph for the performers, organisers and, not least, the composer; and an experience that almost all the members of the audience will remember positively. As I said at the beginning – some work, and some evening.