Sibelius’ “Kullervo”: A Tale of Two Finns

CD

SIBELIUS: Kullervo. Finlandia. / KORTEKANGAS: Migrations / Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo; Tommi Hakala, bar; YL Male Voice Choir; Minnesota Orch.; Osmo Vänskä, cond / Bis SACD-9048

ODE1122-5 coverSIBELIUS: Kullervo / Soile Isokoski, sop; Tommi Hakala, bar; YL Male Voice Choir; Helsinki Philharmonic Orch.; Leif Segerstam, cond / Ondine SACD ODE-1122-5

Here are two digital, SACD recordings of Sibelius’ early masterpiece Kullervo. The first is a relatively new recording (2019) conducted by Osmo Vänskä while the second is a 2008 recording by Leif Segerstam. Both are Finnish conductors, thus both should be expected to understand the work and its deeper meaning better than a non-Finn, as for instance the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi, whose recording on Virgin Classics is often highly praised.

Yet there are considerable differences between these two interpretations, both of which, ironically, use the same baritone and chorus. The pivotal movement is the third, in which the title figure, a sort of Finnish Oedipus, attempts to seduce a beautiful woman who he does not realize is his sister. She rebuffs him the first two times but gives in the third, and when she and Kullervo learn, too late, that she is his long-lost sister, she jumps in a lake and drowns herself. Kullervo attempts to atone for his crime by dying on the battlefield. Unsuccessful at this, he returns to the site of the rape, “marked by dead grass and bare earth where nature refuses to renew itself,” and falls on his sword.

Thus this is not just a dramatic work to be interpreted with energy and excitement, though much of the music is indeed exciting; rather, it is a tragic tale to be interpreted along the lines of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and the allusion to Stravinsky is quite apt. Here, in 1892, Sibelius was already using an advanced harmonic language that drew criticism in its day for being too dissonant, yet which sounds eerily like Stravinsky’s music from his neo-classic period.

I should point out that this release is Vänskä’s second recording of this work for Bis, the first having been made in September 2000 and issued on Bis CD-1215. In that recording, Paaskivi is also the mezzo soloist but the baritone was Raimo Laukka. The difference between the two performances is minimal, the first being a mere one minute and five seconds longer than the second. In terms of expression, however, the new recording is a distinct improvement over the first. Even in the opening movement, Vänskä sounds much more engaged and energetic, digging into the music with much more drama than in his first reading. Listening to these two performances, even from the outset, I would say that it’s time for Bis to “retire” Vänskä’s older recording permanently. I honestly don’t see the point in keeping it around now.

Yet as much as I liked this new Vänskä version, I felt as if I were in another world when I switched over to Leif Segerstam’s performance on Ondine. Just as the second Vänskä version was a distinct improvement on the first, from the very first notes of the Segerstam performance we are almost listening to different music. There is a tragic note here from the opening; not a single phrase or gesture is taken for granted. Segerstam gets so deeply under the skin of the music that it almost raises goosebumps in the listener. And ditto the pivotal third movement. Despite taking it at a much faster clip—it runs 24:38 to Vänskä’s 25:55—there is not only more drama in Segerstam’s performance but also greater tension. You can just feel that something portentous is about to happen, and moreover, that it’s not going to end well. Moreover, Ondine’s sound is clearer and more forward than Bis’s. You can almost feel the “grit” in the brass here, and this, too, adds to the tragic feeling of the piece.

To be fair, baritone Tommi Hakala doesn’t sing any better on either recording. He has a pleasant baritone voice but a somewhat fluttery one, but since both conductors chose him for this important role I suppose he must have something “Finnish” about him that they like for this work. Both Soile Isokoski (Segerstam) and Lilli Paasikivi (Vänskä) sing well. But Segerstam sounds like Rodsiński, Fricsay or Toscanini compared to Vänskä, and in this work—and, I would say, in all of Sibelius’ works—this makes a crucial difference.

As for the additional pieces on the Vänskä CD, Migrations by one Olli Kortekangas (b. 1955) was commissioned by Vänskä for the Minnesota Orchestra and premiered by them in 2014. The music, though modern, is more bitonal in places than a resolutely atonal work. Vänskä wanted a piece that could be paired in performance with Kullervo, and to this extent he succeeded. The text it is based on was written by poet Sheila Packs, who writes, “Migration has long been a metaphor for me as a poet. All of my grandparents are from the western side of Finland.” This is said of a country that is 210,306 square miles, not even as large as the state of Texas. Some migration. It sounds more like “up the road a piece.” Although it is sung in English, our mezzo soloist has poor diction and cannot be understood. Yet despite all this, the music is pretty good—not great or earth-shaking, but fairly well written although many phrases were predictable to me. Vänskä closes out the program with a rare choral version of Finlandia. Again, this is a fairly good performance but lacks bite. Listen to Segerstam’s version, which also uses the male chorus.

Bottom line: the new Vänskä recording is a great improvement over the first, but it’s just not in the same class as Segerstam. This is a performance for the ages.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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