Sibelius’s Kullervo and Finlandia pairs up with Kortekangas’s Migrations

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COMPOSERS: Kortekangas,Sibelius
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Sibelius * Kortekangas
WORKS: Sibelius Kullervo; Finlandia Kortekangas Migrations
PERFORMER: Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Tommi Hakala (baritone); YL Male Voice Choir; Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-9048 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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For all its darkly tragic story, excitement has always been Kullervo’s keynote: the excitement of a young composer flexing his orchestral muscles; the excitement of its early audience, discovering that their beleaguered little nation had a brilliant new artistic voice; the excitement we felt in the 1970s as it resurfaced in Paavo Berglund’s recording, still among the best. Occasionally raw, yet unmistakeably, blazingly Sibelian, Kullervo foreshadows both his symphonic potential and a dramatic capability he hardly developed.

Osmo Vänskä’s Sibelius, though, has always been distinguished by detail, rhythmic precision and poetic luminosity, and his earlier recording with the Lahti orchestra, effective in grimmer moments, seemed to underplay the surging choral swashbuckle and orchestral sparkle of ‘Kullervo and his Sister’ and ‘Kullervo goes to war’. This new live recording is better throughout, gaining perhaps from more extrovert Minnesota playing, with the YL choir (who must sing this in their sleep), excellent if slightly mature soloists and SACD sound. It doesn’t displace my personal favourites, Leif Segerstam’s thoughtful later recording and the underrated Ari Rasilainen’s sheer grandeur, but its sense of atmosphere is equally striking.

It was perhaps a bit unfair to couple this and Finlandia with Olli Kortekangas’s new Migrations, commemorating 19th-century Finnish immigrants to Minnesota, in words by a Finnish-American poet. That might sound merely worthy, but the music, by this pupil of the late Einojuhani Rautavaara, is lively, highly accessible, with occasional hints of Vaughan Williams. But against Kullervo’s drive and fire it’s bound to be slightly dimmed.

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Michael Scott Rohan