SIBELIUS Kullervo. Finalndia KORTEKANGAS Migrations
No choir on the planet has as much experience or affinity with Kullervo as the YL Male Voice Choir and the ensemble proves as much here from the very first stanza of text in Sibelius’s Op 7: the annunciation of ‘Ku-ller-vo’, with its lightly rolled ‘r’, and the twisting diphthong and attacca ‘a’ of ‘poika’. The choir is bushy-tailed in ‘Kullervo and his Sister’ without sounding raucous – as good a litmus test as any – and clearly helped make this live performance in Minneapolis an event.
So what of the orchestra? I’d say Vänskä’s Minnesota Orchestra is even more lustrous now than it was pre-lockout, particularly in its string sections (notice the textures around 5'30" in ‘Kullervo’s Youth’). As always, articulation is the watchword with Vänskä and you hear it everywhere, perhaps best of all in the contrasting orchestrations that underlie that repeating opening vocal ‘Kullervo, Kalervon poika’. Vänskä knows what he wants to convey: a hopelessness from the start of ‘Kullervo’s Youth’ that completely eludes Colin Davis and others; a demonic quality in ‘Kullervo Goes to War’ that underlines the thematic link with Stravinsky’s Petrushka (never heard that before).
But ultimately, there’s something about this Kullervo that underwhelms. It might be the soloists: Lilli Paasikivi’s wonderful instrument sounds wayward and frequently sharp (she is no match for Paavo Järvi’s Randi Stene, a personal favourite); Tommi Hakala doesn’t bring the electrifying, hopeless brilliance to ‘Voi poloinen’ that Waltteri Torikka did for Sakari Oramo at the 2015 Proms (couldn’t Torikka have been given the chance to record it, given Hakala has before?). Oramo’s performance was gripping from the start (even on the BBC’s iPlayer) in a way that Vänskä’s isn’t. I am sure Vänskä will please those who view the piece more symphonically.
But what a joy it is to see this wonderful orchestra standing tall again – tall enough to commission a brand-new work to complement Kullervo, and for the same forces. But once more, care and thoughtfulness have paradoxically got in the way of the end result. Olli Kortekangas’s Migrations was written to mark 150 years since the start of modern migration from Finland to North America (much of it to Minnesota). But while Kortekangas sniffed out the perfect poet in Sheila Packa, a Minnesotan of Finnish ancestry, her borderline naff and soundbite-based texts haven’t pushed the composer into anything like Kullervo’s scale or impact. The piece feels far more stop-start (and short) than its sonic weight suggests it should.
The choral elements, for example, can sound lumbering and harmonically anaemic, as if the prescription of writing for male voices only has restricted Kortekangas rather than pushing him to greater invention. Sometimes you get the feeling there’s a fine piece lurking within some of the composer’s more fertile ideas (the motif that controls the second interlude, for example), but that this, frustratingly, isn’t it. The masterstroke – a sort of pining, twisting upwards on the concluding lines ‘of wings that rise and fall / the circle of migration / in each flight / music that we breathe’, to me a clear and telling refraction of the final pages of Sibelius’s Fifth – is too little, too late. The vocally underpowered Finlandia that follows certainly doesn’t compensate.