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Sibelius, Kullervo (op. 7), S. Isokoski, T. Hakala, YL Male Voice Choir, Helsinki Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released May 13, 2008)
Ondine ODE 1122-5 | 77'56"
In the booklet essay for this beautiful new recording, the scholar Veijo Murtomäki sees Sibelius's own fatherlessness behind his fascination with the character of Kullervo. In the national epic of Finland, Kalevala, the hero Kullervo is an orphan who wanders without roots. In the central episode of Kullervo (although Sibelius initially called the work a symphony, it is now considered a tone poem), Kullervo falls in love with a maiden and abducts her, only to discover later that she is his lost sister. Unlike a similar myth familiar to Wagner fans, the curse of incest leads both Kullervo and his sister to despairing suicide, the former on the very spot where the crime took place.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela [Axél Gallén], Kullervo Curses Himself
Akseli Gallen-Kallela [Axél Gallén], Kullervo Curses Himself
The rather outlandish score, for large orchestra and male chorus (Sibelius thought that female singers would be embarrassed to sing about the rape scene), was a failure. Sibelius apparently cut back on the scope of his musical forces in the more intimate En Saga that followed this work. Kullervo has made a comeback in recent years, especially as an example of how Sibelius more or less single-handedly created a "Finnish musical sound." Sibelius did not publish the score during his lifetime, although he was working on a revision, of which he completed only the third movement at the time of this death.

Two of the five movements have vocal parts set to texts from Kalevala. In the third movement (Kullervo and His Sister), the pulsing tinkle of the triangle and the constant, rattling tempo (Allegro vivace, in jarring 5/4 meter) evoke Kullervo's voyage by sled. He sets out to pay the taxes, to pay the land-dues, and ends up raping his sister, whom he seduces with his gold and other wealth. By far the longest movement, this piece has a certain amount of repetition, in keeping with the repetition of epic poetry, with some more dissonant music during the rape and for Kullervo's despairing final soliloquy.

The first movement, Introduction, seems like a murky evocation of the mythic landscape of Finland. Although other symphonic models are referenced, the adaptation of folk melodies from western and eastern (Karelia) Finland make the work unmistakably Finnish. The mood is expansive and often bleak. The second movement, depicting Kullervo's tragic youth as an outcast and slave, has a slowly pulsing steadiness to it, interrupted periodically by repeated-note outcries from the full orchestra. Kullervo, believing he is marked for death by his crime, goes to war in the short march-like fourth movement, to kill the uncle who murdered his parents.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela [Axél Gallén], Kullervo Goes to War
Akseli Gallen-Kallela [Axél Gallén], Kullervo Goes to War
While Kullervo is not under-recorded, what this recording has principally to recommend it is its all-Finnish forces, most important for the native pronunciation in the vocal movements. The YL Male Voice Choir, founded at the University of Helsinki, provides solid, husky-voiced narration befitting its storied history with Sibelius's music and Finnish choral music in general. (The group already partnered with the Helsinki Philharmonic to record the work for EMI several years ago, as well as with other orchestras.) Baritone Tommi Hakala has been an emerging presence, especially in opera (including a few appearances at the Met), and here has a full, if occasionally dull-edged sound. Soprano Soile Isokoski is as incisive as ever, by contrast, and adds an impressive companion to her recent disc of Sibelius songs, also with the Helsinki Philharmonic. Those who enjoyed Leif Segerstam's Sibelius symphony cycle, gathered into a box set by Ondine in 2006, will want to acquire this fine recording as a supplement.

If you like the images by Akseli Gallen-Kallela [Axél Gallén], see his other paintings from Kalevala.

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