tue 16/04/2024

Prom 58: Kullervo, BBCSO, Oramo | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 58: Kullervo, BBCSO, Oramo

Prom 58: Kullervo, BBCSO, Oramo

Superlative performance of Sibelius's early epic coincides with Tolkien publication

'Kullervo Goes to War' by Akseli Gallen-Kallela Public domain

Last night's Proms performance of Sibelius's Kullervo symphony was radiant, unforgettable, but there has also been a pure coincidence this past week which is simply too good to pass over unremarked: Thursday also saw the first-time publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's version of the same narrative, The Story of Kullervo.

What has struck me with force in the past few days is that a dark, violent Nordic tale, the same section of Finland's national epic the Kalevala, not only cast a spell but also proved decisive at the early stages of two very different creative lives. It was the first orchestral work of significant scale for the 26-year-old Sibelius in 1891-2; it was also the first ever attempt by Tolkien to re-tell a saga. This short work set a new direction around the time of Tolkien's 22nd birthday as a student in Oxford in the winter of 1913-14, which was to remain with him for the next six decades.

Tolkien's The Story of KullervoTolkien explained the allure of the Kullervo story in a talk he gave in 1914, now published with his re-telling of the story: “You will find it rather jolly to live with this strange people and these new gods awhile, with this race of unhypocritical scandalous heroes and sadly unsentimental lovers.” There is a clear note of flippancy here, but working on The Story of Kullervo didn't just distract Tolkien from his studies, it clearly had a literally life-changing effect on him as well.

Last night's performance of the Sibelius brought that unsentimental world “splashed onto a clean bare canvas by a sudden hand,” in Tolkien's expression, astonishingly to life. Every word of Kullervo assigned to the chorus was enunciated with devastating clarity, purpose and urgency by the mostly Finnish male voice choir, the Polyteknikkojen Koro from Aalto University, augmented by the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus. They were deservedly given the first and the loudest applause.

Whoever took the original decision (Roger Wright?) to bring in the Finnish university choir for this performance certainly deserves thanks, because there is no sound quite like it. They were also singing out of their collective skins. That moment at the start of the last movement when the harmony thickens, as the words describe Kullervo disappearing into the dark forest to meet his death, was spine-tingling. As one member of the Finnish choir remarked to me spontaneously after the concert: “Oramo is inspiring, and that makes us work very hard.”

The two vocal soloists also gave astonishingly vivid accounts of their tragic roles. As the sister, Johana Rusanen-Kartano (pictured below), who has made a speciality of the low-lying soprano part, was particularly memorable in the poignant final words before her character rushes off to commit suicide. Young baritone Waltteri Torikka also made the most of his anguish, the moment his character regrets ever having been born. He was slightly underpowered in the hall, but in the radio mix is bound to be superb.

Johanna Rusanen-KartanoAnd last but not least the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, which is going through a purple patch at the moment. The strings are required to provide eerie textures, and then to step forward, shape and love the melodies. They did both with total conviction from every desk. A wind moment to treasure was the irregularly accented passage of band music at the start of the fourth movement, to which the entire section brought out a character very similar to Stravinsky's Petrushka, not written until nearly two decades later. Oramo brought quality and concentration throughout, and was totally convincing and authoritative in the way he brought movements to a close.

Some end in blazes of glory, where the strong, 12-member brass section was triumphant. Others were mesmerically, translucently quiet. That was the case, too, with the quiet heart and the close of the tone poem which followed Kullervo, En Saga, preceding it before the interval in this Prom. Both brought sustained, hushed rapture. Individual honours for the evening go to flautist Daniel Pailthorpe and clarinettist Richard Hosford, playing out solistically and heroically. Both are world-class players at their peak. 

This was a very special Prom. Some commentators may have expressed doubts as to the quality and impact of the festival's Sibelius anniversary celebrations up to this point. Last night, such doubts could be cast aside as conductor, soloists, chorus and orchestra took a below-capacity hall on an unforgettable journey.

  • Tolkien's The Story of Kullervo, edited by Verlyn Flieger, is published by Harper Collins

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts in the BBC Proms

Every word of 'Kullervo' assigned to the chorus was enunciated with devastating clarity, purpose and urgency


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Agree with every word (except that handsome young Mr Torikka sounded strong from some way back in the hall). The most transformative Prom I've heard so far this year. A wall of sound is the only way to describe nearly 150 male voices singing in unison (and those Finns!)

As I mentioned a few days ago, Oramo and the Polytech Choir will show You what Kullervo is about; and they really did! Even by broadcasting it sounded very powerfull and also very elegant and sophisticated when necessary. I've experienced about one hundred Kullervos and I'll not hesitate to declare this performance one of the best, perhaps the best. I'm happy that the british audience got this performance as a proof of Kullervo as a true masterpiece.

Superb concert of an absolute masterpiece. Isn't it about time Kullervo took its deserved place alongside the other Sibelius symphonies rather than being damning with faint praise? This is the first time I have heard it in the flesh and can't wait to hear it in the concert hall again. Extraordinary all the empty seats! Well done to all concerned but especially the magnificent chorus. The finale in particular was unforgettable.

I was there! I was held for every second of the performance. All the praise in the review and comments are supported by me, and more! Walterri was certainly not underpowered from where I was sitting - he must come back to next year's Proms. As for the Finnish choir, wow! they deserve a whole Prom. What a night. The lengthy and exuberant applause- the best I have participated in for a long time.

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