I was actually in London primarily for family reasons this weekend, but even if Sunday's Philharmonia season opener hadn't been a neat fit, I would have made the journey south to hear it. The reason was simple: Sibelius's Kullervo. This early choral symphony is not performed all that often - I last heard it during the BBC SSO's cycle of the symphonies in 2006; most recorded surveys of the symphonies omit it. Yet its neglect is surely unjust. Driving melodies, searing drama and wonderful choral and orchestral climaxes, it has them all in spades. What an opening concert it would make for, say, the Edinburgh International Festival.
But I digress. Esa-Pekka Salonen directed an extremely persuasive reading, with an excellent sense of the work's structure, keeping his powder dry early on, thus ensuring that the later climaxes had full impact. As he managed with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Edinburgh recently, he delivered a performance that was not only fearsomely dramatic but extremely graphic and full of violence. After that performance someone I spoke to remarked that he brought out new details. I do not know that score well enough to comment, but he certainly highlighted things in the Sibelius that haven't struck me before, such as the orchestral accompaniment when Kullervo's sister tells of her time picking fruit or the delicate open to the finale.
He was aided by stunning playing from the Philharmonia, both at the quieter moments and in those thrilling climaxes, and in his well judged transitions between the two. This was apparent at many points, such as a jump in the first movement from beautifully soft pizzicato basses to blazing brass. While this was perhaps a little too blazing for one or two members of the chorus who found themselves just above the tuba (and could be seen with a finger in their ear at one or two points) it was glorious in the stalls.
After a strong performance of Kullervo's Youth, which moved well from genuine youth, emphasised by leader Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay's solos (one of many fine solo contributions from across the orchestra), to adulthood, replete with drama and setback along the way, we got to the central encounter between Kullervo and his sister. Salonen had wisely elected to turn to Scandinavia for the vocal contributions. The male voices of Orphei Drängar had both a fine tone and colour and no shortage of weight. They also, crucially, seemed at home with the text. Together they built a wonderful rhythm out of the repeating motifs, such as Kullervo's lineage and his blue stockings. Jukka Rasilainen's Kullervo was full of character and an extremely powerful performance, nowhere more so than when at the end of the movement he sang of the shame he had wrought on his family and wished he had never been born, accompanied by horrific and devastating chords from the whole orchestra.
Alongside him Monica Groop was very nearly as fine, and while hairs might be split that her seething early rejections of him didn't have the last degree of venom that the very finest interpreters have brought, she gave a captivating delivery of her story. Her stunning reddish/pink dress seemed especially well chosen when she had to deliver the line that she wished she had existed as a scarlet cranberry rather than know these horrors.
The words too deserve a mention in this most dramatic of pieces, operatic almost. The decision to employ surtitles, meaning we didn't need to sit with head buried in programme or fear losing track of where we were, heightened the drama. This is to be encouraged.
After the intensity of this, Kullervo going to war was perhaps the only area where Salonen was not totally persuasive, though this too was still very fine and full of energy. Indeed, some lull is surely needed before the passion of Kullervo throwing himself on his sword in the finale, when once again we were treated to the full force of the men of Orphei Drängar. It was, in short, a thrilling and fantastic way to spend seventy-five minutes.
The concert had opened with a dedication to Kurt Sanderling, who enjoyed a long association with the orchestra. Salonen gave a brief and well judged tribute, after which they played The Death of Mélisande from Sibelius's Pelléas et Mélisande. For string orchestra, it was beautifully and movingly played, especially the delicate ending; it was also a choice that fitted well with the evening's programme.
The other work in the first half was, for me at least, less successful. That's not to say that violinist Viktoria Mullova didn't deliver a technically excellent reading of Brahms' violin concerto; she did. Nor was there much to quibble with in the punchy accompaniment provided by the Philharmonia. However, beneath this skill, the performance didn't speak to me emotionally and felt rather cold and clinical.
But that didn't really detract from a night that surely belonged to Salonen, the Philharmonia, Groop, Rasilainen and the men of Orphei Drängar, who together turned in a gloriously persuasive reading of an unjustly neglected work. I sincerely hope I do not have to go another five years before I hear it live again. In the meantime, the Philharmonia's microphones were present, so doubtless a record of the event will appear in due course. It will be well worth acquiring.
Generally not a fan of Salonen, I am intrigued by the Kullervo and pleased to hear this performance was well thought out and presented dramatically. Off to Amazon.com... Thanks!
I'm aware Salonen has an existing LA recording but have never heard it so cannot recommend. A few years back I heard him play some other Sibelius with the LA Phil and wasn't too impressed but he's been pretty good when I've heard him with the Philharmonia.
If you don't already have a Kullervo, I'd start with either Vanska/Lahti or Jarvi snr/Gothenburg (both on BIS).
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