29 April 1892 can be considered a red-letter day in the annals of Finnish music. It was on this day that the premiere of Jean Sibelius' symphony Kullervo took place. The work was a huge success. Audiences went wild and critics raved; indeed, despite the young age of the composer - twenty-seven years - Sibelius became overnight the new young trailblazer of Finland's musical establishment.
But despite this overwhelming triumph, the events preceding it were hardly favourable. Sibelius had been toying with the idea of writing a symphony since late 1890, soon after he heard Bruckner's Third in Vienna. Also, being away from his native country, the composer developed an ardent enthusiasm for the legends of the 'Kalevala'. Still, these two aspirations were not enough to spur Sibelius to start on his project. It had to be a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, conducted by Hans Richter in April 1891, to set him going. Sibelius would now visualise how he would set text from the 'Kalevala' and include soloists and a huge choir. Yet, as was his wont, progress was slow. After returning to Finland in June 1891, Sibelius spent six months doing practically nothing.
This indolence ended in January 1892, when he decided that the symphony should be about Kullervo, the most tragic figure in the 'Kalevala'. Sibelius wanted the symphony performed without undue delays, something that he succeeded in doing. Indeed the work was completed at the very last moment and this left little time for rehearsals. This fact apart, the work encountered other serious obstacles. The orchestra, consisting mostly of German musicians, considered the musical language of the piece completely alien, and the choir was made up of Swedish-speaking amateur singers and pupils from a Finnish-language primary school.
To top it all, Sibelius, up to that point in life, had never conducted a symphony concert. The only professionals for the premiere were just the two soloists. Despite all these pitfalls, the occasion was an unprecedented success as attested by both composer and conductor, in this instance, the famous Robert Kajanus.
The symphony, in five movements, narrates the story of Kullervo, a simple yet complicated man, who as a youth suffered a string of misfortunes and is finally betrayed. He encounters more tragedies when he meets a beautiful maiden and seduces her, later finding out that she was his own sister.
Listen — Sibelius: Kullervo and His Sister (Kullervo)
(track 3, 21:51-22:49) © 2019 2019 Ondine Oy :
He goes to war with the hope of meeting death to appease his guilt, but when this attempt is unsuccessful, he brings everything to an end by falling on his own sword. Dramatic stuff indeed. And so is the music, with its marvellous orchestration and colourful details, betraying Sibelius's genius in no uncertain manner.
Listen — Sibelius: Kullervo's Death (Kullervo)
(track 5, 0:00-0:52) © 2019 2019 Ondine Oy :
In Kullervo lie the germs of the fifth symphony and Tapiola. The foremost Sibelius conductor Hannu Lintu's interpretation is brimming with maturity and grandeur. His pacing is impeccable, and he draws vivid singing from his choir and soloists, not to mention the impressive sense of sweep from the orchestra.
Listen — Sibelius: Kullervo Goes to War (Kullervo)
(track 4, 7:02-7:50) © 2019 2019 Ondine Oy :
Exhilarating and exciting by turns, it strengthens my belief that this Kullervo version is almost perfect, but then in music when is perfection ever really attained? Excellent sound quality and annotations complete a very fine issue of a work that never fails to create a sense of awe. Unreservedly recommended.
Copyright © 29 December 2019