Double Play: Lost landscapes and last words: New records reviewed by Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson

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The Independent Culture
SIBELIUS: Kullervo Rorholm, Hynninen, Helsinki University Chorus, Los Angeles Philharmonic / Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sony SK 52563)

FORTH then rides Salonen the fair- of-countenance, the monster Kullervo to subdue. It is indeed a heroic task, for the monster can change its shape without warning: symphony one moment, grandly rhetorical tone poem the next, then a cantata, then a foretaste of the Sibelius opera that never quite was.

Salonen seems determined either to find its secret shape, or to impose one on it. I'd say he achieves both - in about equal measure. Sometimes he drives the music relentlessly, apparently hoping that the fissures in the structure will bind more tightly - the first movement feels pressurised towards its close. But there are plenty of places where the forward sweep is just what the music needs. 'Kullervo's youth' gains in dramatic power and cohesion, while the remarkable forbidden-love scena 'Kullervo and his sister' is tremendously exciting, the alternation of driving chorus and recitative-like solo making more sense than ever.

He doesn't seem quite able to peform the necessary heroic rescue in 'Kullervo goes to battle' - it may be a forlorn cause anyway - but in the closing pages of 'Kullervo's death' there is real uplift. For once it feels like the end of a symphony. This is a Sibelius who learnt more from Bruckner than a love of pedal-points and rustling strings.

Technically the disc sounds excellent. The Los Angeles Philharmonic can be a little too suave, but the energy and beauty of sound are plusses, as are the strong singing and sharp enunciation of the Helsinki University Chorus and the soloists Marianna Rorholm and Jorma Hynninen. Delivered with such conviction, the Finnish text becomes grippingly expressive - though I still think incest sounds better in classical Greek. SJ

WHAT an entrance this was for Sibelius, the symphonist. The spirit of the national epic, Kalevala, rolls in - music steeped in folklore, the Finnish hinterlands mapped out over eternal ostinatos, punctuated with gaping silences and blocked declamations. You come away humming the landscape, knowing that you'll be passing this way again. Never mind the flaws, the optimistic balances, the odd wayward paths: nobody ever lost his way more compellingly than Sibelius. He could have endlessly revised Kullervo. It could have been better, but would it have been as good?

The wrongs are what make it right: strange, unpredictable, unique. Salonen knows the terrain, he confidently lays down the elusive superstructure. Peaks have been craggier in the first movement; brass and timpani could be tougher in their challenges to the surge of string tone towards the coda. In the second movement, Salonen probes darkly into Kullervo's past with the shifting, swirling bass lines - most impressive.

The LA Philharmonic is right there on the tip of his baton. But there's a suspicion from time to time that he has softened some of the edges, rose-tinted the legend. (Or is it the spacious but slightly diffuse recording?) I like my Sibelius a little more unhoned. As you might expect, though, the men of the Helsinki University Chorus bring their high-testosterone sound vividly to bear on the two choral movements. Their final acclamation of the fallen hero is so stirring that it almost outweighs earlier reservations. ES

HAYDN: The Seven Last Words of

Our Saviour from the Cross

Lindsay Quartet

(ASV DCA 853)

THE BROAD plan is not encouraging: seven big slow movements, plus a substantial maestoso ed adagio introduction, the only music of any velocity being the tiny burst of presto representing the earthquake at the end. Haydn the devout Catholic obviously realised that a Lenten devotion on the words of the dying Christ was hardly the place to display his famous sense of humour. The mood remains dark, the expression anguished or resigned throughout.

When delivered limply, or with a long face, it can be a penance. But when performed with the passion and intelligence the Lindsay Quartet brings here, it draws one in and maintains its grip to the close - even when, as here, repeats are observed and the total experience runs to over 70 minutes. The range of expression, the ability to channel so much feeling into a tiny turn of phrase - you can almost hear the words in places - will surprise those whose idea of Haydn is the aged prankster of school text-books. Haydn claimed that the piece was guaranteed 'to create the most profound impression even on the most inexperienced listener'. After this performance I should think it would. SJ

SEVEN last words, seven slow movements - and just when you thought 'the rest is silence', a short, sharp, shocking presto that is both an end and a beginning. There are few stranger rituals in the classical repertory. It shouldn't work. But the composer is Haydn, and that's what makes this Passion so personal and so very engrossing: an act of humility at once candid and mystic, graphic and abstract.

The listener may or may not choose to hear the contemplation of paradise in the exquisite violin cantabile of the second meditation, or the tormenting drips of water in the cooling pizzicato of the fifth ('I thirst').

But however one listens, there is always the abiding beauty of reflective, contemplative Haydn. The words 'Woman, behold thy Son; Son, behold thy mother' elicit one of his most inspirational adagios, and as echoes of the march to Calvary grow more and more remote in the closing movement, the very 'last words' of all bring musical phrases so fragile, so softly spoken here that they barely violate silence at all. ES

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