Sibelius

COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: CPO,Telarc
ALBUM TITLE: Kullervo
PERFORMER: Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano),
Nathan Gunn (baritone); Atlanta
Symphony Men’s Chorus & Orchestra/
Robert Spano

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Kullervo
Satu Vihavainen (soprano), Juha
Uusitalo (bass-baritone); KYL Male
Chorus; Staatsphilharmonie
Rheinla
CATALOGUE NO: CD-80665 ¥ CPO 777 196-2
Sibelius’s symphonic portrait of

the Kalevala’s anti-hero was his

breakthrough work, thrillingly

asserting Finland’s musical identity

and his own; but, always self-critical,

he withdrew it. Paavo Berglund’s

revelatory premiere recording (on

EMI) was made only in 1970; now a

dozen more, especially Berglund (on

EMI again), Osmo Vänskä (BIS)

and Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live),

offer stiff competition. Having heard Robert Spano’s

2005 Ring at Seattle, I was

disappointed to find his Kullervo

so lacklustre. He cramps the first

movement’s atmospheric opening

theme and continues choppily, with

some tentative playing; the second,

‘Kullervo’s Youth’, drags, missing the

cradle-song quality Sibelius specified.

The third movement’s allegro vivace

opening disappoints at the great

choral entry; neither they nor Spano

grasp the springy Finnish rhythms

and stresses Sibelius agonized over.

You don’t have to be Finnish to get

this right, as the LSO Chorus in

Davis’s benchmark version show.

Nor do the Swedish and American

soloists sound idiomatic. The fourth

movement, Kullervo’s ride to battle,

begins brightly, and the chorus fare

better in the doomladen last, but the

effect is still shallow.

The new CPO recording

highlights all too clearly what

the Telarc lacks. Rising Finn Ari

Rasilainen shows us Kullervo the

national epic with a vengeance,

large-scale and bursting with creative

energy, vibrantly played and quite

spectacularly recorded in SACD

surround-sound. His pacing is sure

and detailed, vividly dramatic and

alive to the shifting colours of this

young man’s score. Right from the

expansive opening theme, the first

movement fluently surges forward

with ardour, yet the second begins

with exactly the right baleful,

foreboding tenderness. The third

excites as it builds up to the entry of

the splendid chorus – of the Helsinki

Business College no less. The

soloists are Finnish National Opera

stalwarts, Satu Vihavainen touching

in her narration, Juha Uusitaalo, now

a leading international Wagnerian,

singing Kullervo’s lament with

tormented power; the choral overlap

behind his first entry sounds

misjudged, but this is minor. The

fourth movement’s martial colours

positively blaze, and the finale’s eerie

opening leads to a searing catharsis.

Much as I admire other versions,

this one really gripped me with

its idiomatic, atmospheric vigour.

If it misses some of Davis’s dark

poetry, it recreates the excitement

Kullervo aroused at its premiere; and

although both are excellent SACDs,

CPO’s studio recording scores

in immediacy, detail and choral

perspective over LSO Live’s slightly

dry Barbican acoustic. For me

Rasilainen joins Davis as benchmark,

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and might suit a newcomer better.