1) Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo/ Nathan Gunn, baritone/ Men of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus/Norman Mackenzie; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano – Telarc multichannel SACD-60665, 71:47 ****1/2:
2) Monica Group, mezzo/ Peter Mattei, baritone/ London Symphony Chorus/London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0574, 72:12 ****:
3) Satu Vihavainen, soprano/ Juha Uusitalo, bass-baritone/ KYL Male Chorus/ State Philharmonic, Rhineland-Pfalz/ Ari Rasilainen – CPO multichannel SACD 777 196-2, 72:52 ***:
In the 1890s other countries’ cultures dominated Finland’s music, and Jean Sibelius vowed to create a specifically Finnish music by setting one of the stories from the epic mythic tale The Kalevala. Premiere in 1892 and conducted by the composer, the work tells the story of the hero Kullervo in five sections: Introduction; Kullervo’s Youth; Kullervo and His Sister; Kullervo Goes to Battle; and Kullervo’s Death. The third section employs both male and female soloists and the chorus and the fifth section uses only the chorus; the other three are entirely instrumental. Sibelius gained the spotlight immediately, because Finns became aware of the unifying power of their national myth.
Yet in later years the early work was ignored by Sibelius because he wanted to be known as a more internationalist musician, creating abstract works. He sold the score to the Kalevala Society when he ran short of cash, or he might have destroyed it completely later, along with his Eighth Symphony. The Introduction sets the scene, depicting the general character of the hero Kullervo, and the second movement is the slow and reflective one, using folk melodies the composer had collected in the Karelia area (also used in his Karelia Suite). The third movement is the centerpiece and much longer than the movements surrounding it. The story concerns Kullervo returning from paying taxes for the family and propositioning three maidens he passes in his sleigh. The first two rebuff him but the case of gold and silver he shows the third one leads her to succumb to his advances. After what one translation dubs “passing the night in merrymaking,” they share their background with one another and learn to their horror that they are brother and sister. The sister rushes to a nearby river and drowns herself, while Kullervo goes off to battle, expecting to die in combat. This becomes the fourth movement of martial-sounding battle music. The final finds Kullervo wandering thru the forest and accidentally coming upon the spot where he had defiled his sister. He ponders suicide and finally falls on his sword.
The work is a bit of a mishmash of programmatic symphony, cantata and quasi-operatic soliloquies and shows that the young composer was still working his way toward his own unique musical language. There are hints of Wagner and Bruckner in the music, but it is clearly a passionate work which strove to put Sibelius’ country on a path toward its own independent national music.
There’s a lot happening in this score, and thus it’s a most suitable choice for presentation in hi-res multichannel sound. Odd that three different labels have released their own competing versions of it at nearly the same time; it seemed to make sense to deal with them all together. The German production on CPO, with Finnish soloists and a Finnish male chorus, is excellent but somewhat laid back vs. the other two competitors. The Live LSO SACD is more sprightly and sparkling and seems to have more rhythmic flow. The London Symphony Chorus has more snap and the orchestra, as usual, sounds fabulous. There are more startling dynamic contrasts than in the CPO SACD.
The Atlanta Symphony effort on Telarc is equally more active and lively than the CPO. The orchestra itself is not quite as rich-sounding as the LSO but the chorus is exceptionally clear and forceful in both movements where they are heard. Also the sonics are just a bit more transparent, with more of a hall feeling, and the deep bass is more extended. My vote goes to the Telarc, but if it’s possible to make a comparison with the LSO I would advise it. Either way you will experience an unusual and very atmospheric dramatic work immersing you in some of the mystery of Finnish folklore, in excellent surround sound. [The LSO & CPO SACDs are also available from Acoustic Sounds.]
– John Sunier