Sibelius: Kullervo / Kortekangas: Migrations - Vänskä
BIS BIS-9048 (2 discs)
Classical - Vocal
Sibelius: Kullervo, Finlandia (choral version)
Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Tommi Hakala (baritone)
YL Male Voice Choir
Osmo Vänskä (conductor)
Some 150 years ago what is sometimes called ‘The Great Migration’ of Finns to the United States began. Many of the Finns settled in the Mid-West, and especially in the so-called ‘Finn Hook’, consisting of parts of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. To celebrate this, the Minnesota Orchestra under its Finnish music director Osmo Vänskä commissioned the composer Olli Kortekangas to compose a work on the theme of migration, of a scale and nature suitable for performance alongside Jean Sibelius’s great Kullervo. Discovering the work of the Minnesota-based poet Sheila Packa, herself of Finnish descent, Kortekangas composed Migrations for mezzo-soprano, male voice choir and orchestra, the same forces as in Kullervo, with the exception of the baritone soloist in that work.
An all-star Finnish cast – soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala and the celebrated YL Male Voice Choir – joined the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä for three concerts in February 2016, and captured by a recording team from BIS the memorable performances can now be enjoyed by a wider audience. Sibelius began working on Kullervo during his student days in Vienna in 1891, finding his inspiration in the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic. In a letter home to Finland he wrote about ‘a new symphony, totally in the Finnish spirit’ and the work is often regarded as the first successful example of a Finnish national musical language.
In spite of what Sibelius wrote in his letter, the five-movement work is usually regarded as a symphonic poem, but with a duration of c. 80 minutes Kullervo certainly has the scale of a large symphony, and as such the present performance forms a worthy appendix to the highly acclaimed Sibelius cycle which the orchestra and Vänskä brought to a close with the recent release of Symphonies No. 3, 6 and 7. As a fitting close to this two-disc set, and to the concerts in Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, the orchestra performs Sibelius’s Finlandia, with the YL Male Voice Choir joining in in the famous hymn section.
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Review by Graham Williams - February 1, 2017
Ever since its first commercial recording in 1970 Sibelius's Kullervo Symphony Op.7 has been blessed by a remarkable number of perceptive interpretations on disc, five of which have been issued on SACD in high resolution multi-channel sound, providing fierce competition to any newcomer. Now, following on from Osmo Vänskä's superb cycle of the seven numbered Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, we have his latest thoughts on this monumental five movement work. This new live recording is taken from three concerts (4th, 5th and 6th of February 2016) given at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis and is in every respect a serious challenger to existing versions.
Osmo Vänskä first recorded Kullervo in 2001 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra as part of his first Sibelius cycle for BIS and excellent though it was, I have no hesitation in declaring that this new one is even better on a number of counts. Vänskä's performance is once again epic in scale possessing a marvellous breadth and nobility that seems to have inspired all the participants to give of their best. The overall timing of his earlier recording was an astonishing 81 minutes, yet such was the conductor's purposeful direction and firm control of the work's structure it never dragged or lacked a forward pulse. Here Vänskä clocks in at 79'29 and gives a more taut yet still expansive reading of the score.
Timings for the five movements are:
I Introduction 12'46
II Kullervo's Youth 19'05
III Kullervo and his Sister 25'55
IV Kullervo goes to War 9'41
V Kullervo's Death 11'19
It is in movements II and III that Vänskä brings a special and unique insight to the score. 'Kullervo's Youth' moves inexorably with a tragic mien and a sense of dark foreboding that is totally enveloping thanks to the unwavering focus, concentration and sheer beauty of the Minnesota Orchestra's playing. 'Kullervo's Sister' opens in thrilling orchestral style before the entry of the splendid 60-strong YL Male Voice Choir from Helsinki whose runic chanting is splendidly balanced with the orchestra in the spacious BIS recording. The two soloists, the mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and baritone Tommi Hakala have both appeared on other recordings of this work - Paasikivi for Vänskä and Hakala for Segerstam. While neither disappoint, I found the occasional unsteadiness in Hakala's singing and his effortful delivery as he curses himself a slight drawback when compared with, for example, Juha Uusitalo on Ari Rasilainen's fine CPO recording.
There is little doubt though that Vänskä's absolute grasp of the work's architecture and his authoritative direction of the superlative Minnesota Orchestra yield a performance of spacious grandeur that does provide many moments of frisson rarely matched by the studio recordings .
At this point it is worth mentioning that Kullervo is complete on the first disc of this two-disc set while the other two works performed at these concerts with a total playing time of 33'41 occupy the second.
The Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas (born 1955) received a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of modern Finnish immigration to North America. Vänskä wanted a work that could be paired, as here, in concert with the Kullervo Symphony. While searching for suitable texts Kortekangas discovered the work of the Minnesota-based poet Sheila Packa herself of Finnish descent and so set four of her poems on the theme of migration for mezzo soprano, male voice choir and orchestra similar forces to those used in the Sibelius work. Both Lilli Paasikivi and the YL Male Voice Choir show themselves to be equally adept in English as Finnish and give an authoritative account of this restless and often stormy piece.
The final work on the disc, in which the orchestra is again joined by the YL Male Voice Choir, is a rousing performance of Sibelius's most famous work 'Finlandia'. Here the original orchestral version is brilliantly combined with that of the choral arrangement that Sibelius made in 1940. The incisive orchestral playing and full-throated choral contribution of the choir in the hymn section make this unusual Finlandia most memorable, and unsurprisingly at its conclusion the audience shows its appreciation with well deserved cheers and enthusiastic applause.
The engineering of the BIS recording team on these 5.0 hybrid SACDs is excellent. The sound is vivid and spacious while the surround channels add pleasing ambience. Presentation is also the usual high standard we expect from BIS. The two discs are housed in a single width CD jewel box enclosed within a cardboard slip case that also contains a 63-page booklet giving full texts and translations for all three works and excellent notes by Andrew Barnett.
This is an impressive achievement and makes a fitting appendix to Vänskä's acclaimed Sibelius recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Copyright © 2017 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net