Sibelius's early, sprawling Kullervo Symphony's place in a series called UBS Choral Masterworks is questionable. Even Davis admitted that "you just have to play it with immense vigour and conviction".
Still, it has its moments. Kullervo is a legendary hero whose downfall is unwitting incest. The central tragedy is told by a male chorus as narrator and two soloists.
Kullervo's sister narrowly resists rape, only to succumb to riches. If the text leaves any doubt as to when, the orchestra makes the timing brutally graphic. Only in a post-coital talk do the long separated siblings discover their kinship. Consumed with guilt, he goes off to wage war but falls on his own sword. We do not hear what happens to her.
Plain conversation gives way to eloquent laments. Their heartfelt phrases were a gift for Monica Groop and Peter Mattei: she expansive and sorrowful, he turning from orotund self-satisfaction to fearsome intensity. For him it is a big sing with no need to save the voice, and he took the opportunity with devastating effect. The London Symphony Chorus had been well coached in Finnish.
This section would probably be performed on its own, were it not that the symphony's most memorable event is a mighty brass gesture at the culmination of the first and last movements. Otherwise the music takes its time to sound personal, which it does with raw trumpets or closely harmonised high strings, all relished by Davis and probably a relief to the orchestra.
Before it the mature Sibelius of Pohjola's Daughter gave a different take on anti-heroism. While the enclosing moments of grandeur and mystery and the main section of furious activity were finely characterised, Davis didn't quite connect their pacing, and relied on energy and fire to hold the piece together.
Repeat performance, 9 October
- More about: