Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op7, 1892) ? There are many theories why he didn't allow it to be heard after its initial performance, though he referred to it fondly in private. Sakari Oramo considers Kullervo "a masterpiece", and, at Prom 58 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, conducted it with such conviction that there can be little doubt about its unique place in Sibelius's output, and indeed in music history. Kullervo is such a remarkable work, so shockingly original that Paavo Berglund revisited it fifteen years after his original recording,. Neeme Järvi brought yet more new insights. There have been many other performances since, but Sakari Oramo creates an interpretation of great depth and perceptiveness.
From a hushed opening, the Allegro Moderato grew with ever increasing impatience, as if it were an Overture to an opera, for a quasi-opera this is. One cannot underestimate the impact of Wagner and his"forest murmurs", though even at this early stage in his career, Sibelius was iconoclastic, deliberately seeking a new sound world. Unlike Wagner who re-imagined Norse Legend, Sibelius heard living oral tradition at first hand. Kullervo comes alive with the rhythms of the Kalevala, with its strange, primitive pulse and shamanistic repetitions. Hence the short, sharp intervals in the brass and winds, and the driving pizzicato in the strings, creating a sense of tense, ritualized movement. Even to our ears accustomed to Stravinsky, Bartók and Janáček, Kullervo still sounds raw and primeval. Yet it was written twenty-one years before The Rite of Spring.
I've often wondered if Sibelius himself realized how daring Kullervo was and, being a worrier, pulled back, as he might have pulled back from the enormity of his conception for the Eighth? Once, Sibelius performance history presented the composer in sub-Tchaikovsky terms, which really doesn't do the composer justice. Kullervo resets the balance so we can think ahead to the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies and their audacity and inventiveness It is, unequivocally new and individual, the mark of a true genius.
In Kullervo, we can hear the origins of tone poems like Nightride into Sunrise and Lemminkäinen Suite. and reflect that the tone poems are much darker than mere portaits of Nature and myth. Thus the lucid detail of Oramo's conductng, which emphasizes the sophistication that lies beneath the ostensible savagery in the piece. It's not simply folk tale for grand orchestra but an experimental approach to dynamics and relationships. The contrast between emotional extremes and the tight, staccato-like figures creates abstract narrative tension. Oramo makes the orchestra "sing" as if we're hearing Kullervo's nervous heartbeat, pulsating with frustration.
Kullervo is also a musical act of defiance, written as it was at a time when Finland was resisting efforts by Russia to curb its freedoms. This adds context to the figure of Kullervo himself, a child born into suffering. One can appreciate Kullervo without knowing the Kalevala, but it does enhance meaning. Runes XXXI to XXXVI give Kullervo's background. He's cruelly mistreated by an uncle who stole his patrimony. He's tortured and sold into slavery. When he meets the maiden, he rapes her because he wants what she represents, yet, raised in cruelty, he doesn't have what we might call "social skills". Dreams of his long-lost mother have kept him going , so when he discovers that the woman he has violated is his sister, he suffers such guilt that he must offer his own life in appeasement.
Johanna Rusanen-Kartano sang Kullervo's sister. She's a very good dramatic soprano, with the intensity to remind us that the girl, too, has had a traumatic past, lost in the woods while hunting for berries. Her story is as tragic as her brother's. Rusanen-Kartano's lines were rapid-fire tongue twisters, delivered with absolute precison and bite. Later her lines curve sensuously,but even in these beautiful moments, she retained a mysterious quality as if the girl had been led into the forest by evil spirits, represented perhaps in the clarinets and pumping woodwind around her. Waltteri Torikka sang the baritone part. He didn't have quite the assurance of, say, Jorma Hynninen, but he can express the vulnerability that lurks behind Kullervo's brutishness. If his voice didn't project well, live, in the cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall it sounded better on broadcast. There's potential in this voice.
In Kullervo, the choir (the Polytech Choir augmented by the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus) operate like a Greek Chorus commenting on proceedings and adding ballast to the orchestra. These choral parts are difficult, for the lines flow with little pause for breath, relentlessly moving the action forward. The Finnish language, too, poses problems. Every vowel sound must be articulated, and there are vowel sounds one after another in succession, cut across with stinging sibillants. "Kullervo, Kalevon poika, sinisukka äijön lapsi,". For the Polytech Choir from Helsinki, the lines flow seamlessly, yet are energized by high testosterone punchiness. We can hear the fast-moving sleigh, complete with bells as it rushes "noilla Väinön kankahilla, ammoin raatuilla ahoilla". Yet these rhythms also suggest violence, the relentless course of fate, and lets face it a fairly explicit description of sex. I was fascinated by the way the choir varied their emphases, dropped to whispers and rose to full volume,and the variety of subtle expression.
We hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra all the time, so we take them for granted, and forget how good they really are. The Alla marcia (Kellervo goes to war) isn't difficult for players with these technical skills, but they played with energy and vigour. Oramo marked the end of the battle with a long silence, soon the voices of the male choirs returned, ghost-like. Muted large brass, tuba and trumpets muffled, bassoons sighing, clarinets.rising like smoke on a battlefield. While Kullervo begins characterized by hard, angular sounds, and breaking off painfully into silence, the final movement, Kullervo's Death, is an andante. The timpani were beaten in slow march, placed at a distance from the rest of the percussion, cradling the orchestra, perhaps, in the kind of embrace Kullervo never knew. Sibelius didn't set the last lines of Rune XXXV but he and his audiences would have known the moral with which the saga ends. It is a warning that children should not be abused or mistreated.
Starting with a very good En Saga (Op 9, 1892 rev 1902), this was by far the most-focused and well performed Sibelius this season, making up for a patchy, disappointing and over-rated symphonic cycle in earlier Proms. .
This review also appears in Opera Today
Please read my other pieces on Sibelius and Kullervo (including the Ballet in Helsinki this spring).