JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.7 in C, op.105
Kullervo, op.7
En saga, op.9
Rakastava Suite, op.14
Hillevi Martinpelto soprano
Karl-Magnus Fredriksson baritone
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Includes libretto for Kullervo in Finnish, English, German and French.

RCA Victor Red Seal (BMG Classics) 09026-68312-2
2 discs [73:09 + 64:41] mid-price*(?)

by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

Sir Colin Davis completes his RCA cycle of the Sibelius symphonies appropriately with the greatest of this canon, the Seventh Symphony. Likewise, it is a very good move to include Sibelius’s first attempt at large-scale orchestration, the choral Kullervo Symphony. In this way, the cycle is completed with its beginning and its end, so to speak. I sometimes like to think that Sibelius did compose nine symphonies, if you include Kullervo as the first and the dark brother of the Seventh, the tone poem Tapiola as the ninth, with seven in-between.

The Seventh Symphony here begins very promisingly, with ample and palpable build-up. The first trombone solo is magnificently evoked and this first “climax” is surveyed majestically. After this point the slowness of the performance starts to take its toll on the music’s pulse. The performance slowly slackens and at worst this rendition is very sleepy – unless you’re the sort who likes r e a l l y . . . s l o w l y . . . m o v i n g sonorities.

At 22’51”, this is also one of the longest; but bear in mind that length of time taken to perform this work does not always reflect on how convincing you are. This is a plain and conservative reading – Davis does not seem to have anything new to say in the score; as such, it’s not that appealing to a Sibelius nutcase like me (this is my favourite symphony), but a passing or curious collector might find this collection useful, especially if you can find it at a good price (see below).

Taking it at this broad pace, Davis seems to be savouring the score but at expense of its underlying momentum. The final Largamente section is powerful but diffused. Here, each section of the orchestra enters at slightly different points to culminate in a grand C chord. Davis gets an impressive crescendo into this finale, but the lead-up to it lacks the flow of say, the Karajan (1968, DG), Segerstam (Chandos CHAN9055) or the Koussevitsky recording on Pearl or EMI (See here for more details).

The music of Rakastava was first composed as a choral a capella suite (1893, more details here) and then arranged in the equally poetic form for string orchestra, with small parts for timpani and triangle. The performance here shows the multi-faceted beauty of the LSO strings, as demonstrated in the sad first movement, “The Lover” and the quietly playful “The Path of the Beloved”. The final movement, “Good Evening… Farewell!” is taken very slow and with deliberation. Like the Seventh, it loses some of its rhythmic impetus, especially the accompanying background strings. On the other hand this allows one to savour its meltingly tender solo violin melody, where many others play it far too fast.

The “adventure” tone poem En saga is well-played but even more rigid with some of its phrasing. The contrasts between loud/soft sections, as well as fast/slow ones are neither unified nor exploited for effect. However, the LSO clarinettist, who had earlier made his/her mark in Kullervo, performs an intense and beautiful solo towards the end that is worth noting. Here the acoustical image of orchestra is very clear but even more “flat”, with even the heavy brass coming from the front. There is simply no sense of front-to-back perspective.

Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero JrnefeltLeft: Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Jrnefelt

The Kullervo Symphony is tracked with the first movement on CD 1, with the other four on the second. The “Introduction” is surprisingly relaxed – Davis’s overall sense of ease with the broader elements in all the music is apparently deliberate throughout these recordings. Thus, the climax of the big theme at the beginning is hardly inspiring, more passing in nature. Davis keenly emphasizes rhythmic phrases by pushing rather firm on the accents. This is not the way I like it, as it often sounds contrived, at worst clumsy.

The recording reproduces the music in good detail, but overall, this reading of the introduction sounds too deliberate, playing the notes perfectly but without any musical “adventure”, or for that matter, excitement. One exception is the undulating, “slavic” low-string theme towards the end, with its fluttering flutes and ominous treading tuba – this is done with great relish. Still, this performance is no match for the much more powerful rendition by Paavo Berglund (EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2: reviewed here).

There are some interesting nuances in the stringwork provided by the LSO in the slow movement, Kullervo’s Youth. Here the clean recording is very helpful, highlighting both the different layers of the score but also the shifting pulses Davis adopts. Every now and then, however, the rigidity with which he treats the flowing phrases really gets on my nerves, though this is contrasted by other sections where the music moves naturally, or where the accenting is in fact very effective: try this movement around 13’00” – spectacularly stirring and powerful. If you like the music pointed with all its accents and rhythmic phrase strictly played, this performance is for you.

The choir enters in the huge 26-minute Kullervo and his Sister. The movement begins very well, with a distant bray of brass heralding the effectively paced and directed ‘sleigh-ride’ as Kullervo makes his way home in the snow. The LSO are at their best in this movement, exploiting the score in many colourful and evocative ways by punctuating the choral sections with grand interludes and accompanying the soloists very effectively.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the English choir sounds very unnatural singing Finnish. They sing without articulating the multi-short-syllabic Finnish language, neither achieving the throbbing fluidity of this unique tongue nor the heavy incantory chant of Sibelius’ setting. Worst of all, their complete inability to pronounce is painfully obvious to the point of embarassment. (It should sound something like a cross between “air” and “ay”; not “ah” as the London Symphony Choir hollers joyfully at the top of their voices). I find this totally unacceptable for a conductor of Colin Davis’ stature. You need only listen to the Finnish choirs in Berglund’s or Panula’s versions (EMI and Naxos respectively) to see the huge difference it makes to have “authentic” voices – the poetry springs alive and moves like grand myths surging out from the past.

The two Swedish vocal soloists, however, fit into the acoustic and musical picture of the performance very well. They sing in the same vocal atmosphere with the rest of the performers, whereas Jorma Hynninen in his versions (practically every other version of Kullervo, including Berglund’s) tends to overact and over-dramatize. Soprano Martinpelto sings in a fairly light voice, fairly common nowadays, which I find fits into the poetry of the work. She has a beautiful way with her expression and vibrato, not to mention a meltingly tender voice, yet full of tragic appeal.

Once everything starts to get into action in this movement, it really became one of the best I’ve ever heard. Powerful and dramatic in the operatic sense, and also evocative and colourful in the orchestral/poetic way. Only the last three minutes where Kullervo is lamenting his act of incest does the orchestral crashes sound irritatingly clipped. Here Fredriksson cannot match Hynninen’s more deliriously tragic mourning.

'Kullervo Goes To War' by Akseli Gallen-Kallela To escape his shame and guilt, Kullervo goes to War. This is a fine performance of the work, again with many fascinating details revealed. At many points it really sounds like a hunting trip in the forest, but this is no fault of the performers, as there is a decidedly un-warlike character to the music. Davis and the LSO finish it with a superb conclusion, brass punching majestically.

The mourning finale, Kullervo’s Death, is well built-up. The choir develops its tone seamlessly from lamenting for Kullervo to ominously describing his fatal conversation with his sword. The orchestra follows suit, playing the tragic death march with fateful defiance as well as bittersweet pain. There is a short, ironically pleasant melody before the swirling Wagnerian conclusion bursts in, and the choir thunderingly proclaims Kullervo’s doom.

This recording of Kullervo exceeds 81 minutes, the longest that I know of and the only one on two CDs. I can recommend it with reservations, considering there is a better alternative at mid-price on a single CD (the aforementioned Berglund/EMI Matrix version). If you’ve never heard authentic Finnish, you’ll probably not notice the pronounciation thing I mention above – but once you hear the vast difference, you’ll not want this Davis version.

The well-written notes by David Wright succintly survey the wide historical gaps between these works – a fine introduction.

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