Thursday, March 16, 2017

The birth of musical nationalism in the far north: Sibelius' "Kullervo," performed by the Minnesota Orchestra

Nationalism without tears: Jean Sibelius as a student in Vienna
Jean Sibelius, a composer so central to the national consciousness of his homeland, found that closeness a little uncomfortable with the huge success of "Kullervo," a sprawling symphonic poem with chorus and soloists based on the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.

He is said to have withdrawn the work from circulation shortly after its much acclaimed Helsinki premiere in 1892, though portions of it were heard over the next several years. Commentators differ on this decision and its motivation, but it's been credibly said that Sibelius' desire to build a reputation beyond Finland caused him to distance himself from the 80-minute work. And he did indeed become internationally admired, even if his best-known work, ironically, is the short symphonic poem "Finlandia," with a hymnlike melody known worldwide.

Revived in complete form in the 1970s, "Kullervo" was previously known to me in a 1995 Chandos recording by Danish forces (with two Finnish soloists) conducted by Leif Segerstam. Newly recorded and issued on the Swedish BIS label, "Kullervo" is performed by the Minnesota Orchestra (which recently emerged from a dark night of the soul caused by inept, shortsighted management), with music director Osmo Vänskä conducting. He enjoys for the occasion the participation of fellow Finns: soloists Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano, and Tommi Hakala, baritone, plus the stunningly accomplished YL Male Voice Choir.

I won't dwell here on many aspects of the earlier recording that still appeal to me. The sound is somewhat clearer, with less warmth than the new version. But as I understand the work, warmth is not the highest virtue in interpreting this remarkable music. The 25-year-old composer makes musically epic the tragic story of a vengeful warrior hero consumed by guilt for seducing a maiden who turns out to be his sister. Sibelius works with the heritage of musical romanticism idiosyncratically, and there is a kind of abstractness and straightforwardness about his treatment of the story that makes the musical handling more properly bardic (an adjective often too loosely applied to Sibelius's symphonies). His approach here is opposed to the Byronic effusions of Franz List's symphonic poems, for example.

Osmo Vänskä is a homegrown Sibelius advocate.
I can't fault Vänskä's interpretation of music he knows so well, and I'm reviewing without a score. I just feel a little coldness of manner, a proto-modernist emotional distance, suitable for the story — and for its abstract meaning of the folly and confusion of primitive warfare and missions of vengeance. And I'm not trotting out the Arctic Circle cliches common in discussing Sibelius in bringing up the relative coldness of Segerstam's version. The slight burr of the Minnesota sound may be attributable to the hall or the tastes of the recording engineers.

Vänskä and the Minnesotans are particularly impressive in the second movement, "Kullervo's Youth." especially in the sturdiness and billowing shapeliness of the string phrasing. The third movement, "Kullervo and His Sister," introduces the two soloists and the chorus. The narrative element is central here, expressed in an expressively repetitious yet inexorably advancing text. The Finnish poetry, though probably totally unfamiliar to Americans, will connect with those who know Longfellow's "Hiawatha," since the American poet borrowed the meter from "Kalevala." The effect of this meter in our language has been both mocked and admired; Longfellow was an expert metrical technician.

The soloists are vigorously capable of representing the two main characters (plus the first two maidens the hero encounters before the fateful meeting with his sister). The listener feels in the grip of ancient passions and the force of destiny, to borrow a Verdi opera title.  The YL singers produce some of most forceful, unified male choral singing you are ever likely to hear. They return in the finale, which is overloaded with the young composer's feeling his oats rather too strenuously, as he underlines overemphatically the bitter tragedy of Kullervo's shame and suicide.

The Finnish men return in the concluding item in the second disc, a rousing performance of "Finlandia," singing the text later added to Sibelius' immortal tune. The fast orchestral portions of the work are dispatched with rare illumination and energy, qualities that no doubt combined with the audience's love of that big melody to draw a huge ovation from the February 2016 audience in Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall.

The first part of the Disc 2 is a new work, commissioned by the orchestra: Olli Kortekangas' "Migrations," conceived as a companion piece to "Kullervo" — it makes use of the estimable Paasikivi and the YL Male Voice Choir, singing an English text by the Minnesota poet Sheila Packa. "Migrations" handles movingly the ambiguity and tension of movement across national borders — a network of issues even more timely than when this piece was completed in 2014.

Nationalism is also timely, and it's further ironic that nationalism hung like an albatross around the neck of Sibelius' posthumous reputation. "In 1965," wrote Harold C. Schonberg in his "Lives of the Great Composers" (1970), "the centenary of his birth arrived with all the force of a feather against an iron anvil." Near the end of his chapter "European Nationalists," the estimable critic comes to a more charitable conclusion: "In years to come the chances are that the music of Sibelius will occupy a more prominent place than it currently does." If that's true — and Schonberg's prediction is getting a bit long in the tooth — no small part of that prominence will be due to the advocacy of Osmo Vänskä and his hardy Minnesotans, as evidenced in this recording.