Sibelius: Kullervo

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Ondine
ALBUM TITLE: Sibelius
WORKS: Kullervo
PERFORMER: Soile Isokoski (soprano), Tommi Hakala (baritone); YL Male Voice Choir; Helsinki PO/Leif Segerstam
CATALOGUE NO: ODE 1122-5 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Another magazine’s reviewer recently dismissed Kullervo as ‘Sibelius’s patriotic potboiler’ – a stunningly ignorant comment, given that there’s nothing tub-thumpingly patriotic about it, still less anything remotely routine or meretricious. Far from it: this is a young composer’s first revelation of his own genius and his inspiration in Finnish culture, radiating freshness and adventure. Rather than boil any pots, Kullervo if anything lit the fire. That fire remains an essential element in any good performance, and happily this one burns well. Leif Segerstam’s earlier Chandos recording, also with Soile Isokoski, was disappointing – broad to the point of sagging, with an unimpressive Danish chorus, so that moments like the third movement’s great allegro vivace choral entry fell distinctly flat. It couldn’t compete with Paavo Berglund’s recordings and later arrivals, notably the SACD versions from Sir Colin Davis and Ari Rasilainen on CPO. Not so, this new version. Broad it remains, sometimes very much so, but much more expressively paced and phrased, revealing atmospheric detail enhanced by the airy SACD recording and benefiting from finer soloists than Davis and a native chorus. For epic grandeur and excitement Rasilainen remains first choice, with soprano Satu Vihavainen yielding little to Isokoski and Wagnerian bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo excelling Segerstam’s lighter-voiced Hakala; his Lament is searingly powerful. But Segerstam’s more poetic, even reflective reading is a compelling alternative. Michael Scott Rohan