Classical: From Finland with fear

KULLERVO SYMPHONY HALL BIRMINGHAM

FRATRICIDE, SEDUCTION, incest and suicide: Kullervo is not a tale for the squeamish. But it fired the creative imagination of the young Jean Sibelius during his studies in l890s Vienna. Repeatedly the composer returned to mine the riches of Elias Lonnrot's poetic reworking of the Kalevala legends which lent confidence to Finland's emerging national consciousness. Sibelius's oeuvre itself became a crucial part of that process.

His Kullervo symphony, first heard in Helsinki in l893, is a giant of a work, just predating Karelia, and early versions of En Saga and the Lemminkainen Legends.Yet it is no sprawling giant, but a rich-textured narrative full of contrast and incident, often almost visual, with a massive 25-minute central section in which men's chorus, soprano and baritone soloists searingly evoke events surrounding the young hero's unwitting deflowering of his own sister, which leads to his self-condemnation and suicide. This grim saga prised from the CBSO and Sakari Oramo, their Finnish principal conductor, one of their most rewarding evenings to date.

Earlier, Oramo's generous beat allowed perhaps just a fraction too much romantic allure to permeate the sparse wastes of the late tone-poem Tapiola: there was a slightly liquid, fuzzy, almost blandly relaxed quality initially to upper strings, brass and even woodwind. Yet the later passages of dark low woodwind and icy string crescendos were meticulously and beautifully focused.

Kullervo never faltered. The CBSO men's chorus was rhythmically firm, enunciated perfectly, and under Simon Halsey's guidance had grasped exactly the right kind of formal delivery for these epic lines. Of the two soloists, Lilli Paasikivi, just occasionally overborne by the orchestra, brought out a pathos in the sister's lament as yearning as Sibelius's Luonnotar; while the pronunciational affinities of Finnish and Magyar lent a curiously Bluebeard-like feel to Kullervo's lament ("Voi, poloinen, paiviani"), strongly articulated by the baritone Heikki Kilpelainen.

Oramo judged well in setting the hall's sound-chamber doors marginally ajar. The orchestra bears the narrative brunt, and here the interplay between conductor and players repeatedly proved itself. Sibelius's introduction, a small masterpiece, produced an apt warmth from the start, with many superb points of detail : the pianissimo horn call which reins everything in, impeccably disciplined short and long bowing and pizzicato from the violins, rapid-spitting oboes, a vital bassoon-flute dialogue over horns. In "Kullervo's Youth" the grieving viola lead-in abutted helter-skelter passages for cellos and basses, while the woodwind, notably clarinets and cor anglais, was exquisitely poised and refined. The ensuing build- up was bracing, the dissolution as emotionally charged as Strauss's Metamorphosen.

Crisp brass and cellos enhanced the penultimate movement, and from the pianissimo launch for strings, horn and men's chorus (magnificent at the close) the finale, "Kullervo's Death", was gripping. As in the initial movement, Oramo judged the hiatus, or dramatic silence, marvellously. Such a sudden cessation itself became a high point.

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