Sibelius: Kullervo. Osmo Vänskä. © 2016 and 2020 BIS Records AB

CD Spotlight

Beset by Misfortune

GERALD FENECH listens to 'Kullervo' by Jean Sibelius

'... Vänskä's performance captures the drama and excitement of the piece with unique intuition, and the Minnesota Orchestra responds with fire and devotion.'


Ever since the Kalevala, Finland's national epic in fifty runos (poems) was published in 1835, it has fascinated composers, authors, historians and many other cultural minds so much that it is now considered as the very soul of Finnish life at all levels. So it is no wonder that Jean Sibelius, when still at the beginning of his compositional career, decided to write a grand work based on Kullervo, one of the main characters in the Kalevala.

In the epic, Kullervo is a tragic figure continually beset by misfortune. Before he is even born, his uncle Untamo attacks his tribe, practically murdering everyone except Kullervo's pregnant mother. In his attempts to get his revenge on his uncle, the young boy only ends up being sold as a slave to the smith Ilmarinen. Involved in the death of the smith's wife, he escapes and is reunited with his parents. On his way back home after being sent to pay the taxes, Kullervo meets and seduces a girl who later turns out to be his long-lost sister.

He goes to war against his uncle and his revenge is complete when he wipes out Untamo's entire tribe. By the time he returns home, however, his family is dead. Wandering in the forest, he suddenly comes upon the place of his seduction. Consumed by guilt, he throws himself on his sword.

Listen — Sibelius: Kullervo and His Sister (Kullervo)
(track 3, 24:28-25:20) © 2016 and 2020 BIS Records AB :

Sibelius started work on Kullervo in Vienna in the spring of 1891 when he was twenty-six years old, and the result of his labours was a monumental five-movement score for soloists, male choir and orchestra in which he describes, in music of the utmost originality, opulence and boldness of expression, the main events in Kullervo's life, from his youth to his barbaric suicide.

Listen — Sibelius: Kullervo's Death (Kullervo)
(track 5, 0:02-0:59) © 2016 and 2020 BIS Records AB :

Premiered on 28 April 1892, Kullervo was well received, but its success was hampered by the composer's seven symphonies, considered by many to be the greatest works in the genre of the twentieth century. Roughly nine months after Sibelius's death in 1957, his son-in-law Jussi Jalas conducted the first complete twentieth century performance with the Helsinki Philharmonic, but the work had to wait until the 1970s when, through the advocacy of Paavo Berglund, Kullervo found a more favourable place in the concert hall. Since then, this Sibelius masterpiece has been recorded several times with many a famous conductor at the helm, and this version under review is way up there with the very best. Indeed, Vänskä's performance captures the drama and excitement of the piece with unique intuition, and the Minnesota Orchestra responds with fire and devotion.

Listen — Sibelius: Kullervo Goes to War (Kullervo)
(track 4, 7:18-8:11) © 2016 and 2020 BIS Records AB :

Not to be outdone, the YL Male Voice Choir sing with thrilling flamboyancy, while the soloists complement each other with some highly perceptive renditions.

Listen — Sibelius: Kullervo's Death (Kullervo)
(track 5, 7:34-8:20) © 2016 and 2020 BIS Records AB :

The BIS sound is of demonstration quality. Even if you already have this Sibelius gem, it would not be amiss to add this issue to your collection. Superb stuff all the way.

Copyright © 21 November 2020 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta







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