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CSO Opens Season With Moving Epic "Kullervo"

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Sep 18, 2004 - 10:06:59 PM in reviews_2004

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Sept. 18, 2004)

   Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi visits his native Estonia each summer.

   This year he brought a piece of Estonia back with him, the Estonian National Male Choir.

   Fifty-four strong, the choir made its debut with Järvi and the CSO on the opening concert of the CSO season Friday night at Music Hall.

   It was a special event in more ways than one.  Featured work was a CSO premiere, Sibelius’ “Kullervo,” an early symphonic work virtually unknown until after the composer’s death in 1957.

   Adding a bit of luster to the event, Järvi and the Estonian Male Choir won a Grammy together this year.  The Grammy, incidentally, was for Sibelius (Sibelius Cantatas with the Estonian National Orchestra).

    Joining the choir were Finnish baritone Jaako Kortekangas and Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant.

   Based on the Finnish national epic “Kalevala,” “Kullervo” is a mythic work with deeply human dimensions.  Its tragic hero, Kullervo, partakes of Greek tragedy (Oedipus) and Wagner (Siegmund and Sieglinde in “Die Walküre”) as well as the trials of any down-on-his-luck kid.

   Having lost his parents and been sold into slavery, Kullervo fails at every task he is given.  One day his master send him off in a sledge to pay the taxes.  On the way, he meets three girls, two of whom reject him coldly.  When the third heaps abuse on him, he hauls her into the sledge and persuades her to make love to him.  When they discover they are brother and sister, she kills herself, he wreaks revenge on the clan who killed his parents and then kills himself.

   The music is epic to match, with echoes of Bruckner, Wagner and Tchaikovsky.  Three of the five movements are purely orchestral, including the first two.  The third is like an operatic scene.  The finale is a heartrending lament for chorus and orchestra.  There is an abundance of orchestral and vocal riches in “Kullervo” and all were delivered magnificently by Järvi, the CSO and their guests.

   Both the Introduction and “Kullervo’s Youth” were perfused with the tragedy to come.  Kullervo’s theme soared from the opening bars, while the second movement lullaby was wreathed in desolation and intensity, ending in shattered, disconnected fragments.

   “Kullervo and His Sister” sparkled like sunlight on snow and the choir produced a big, heroic sound to the lower strings’ trundling rhythms.  Hellekant and Kortekangas met, she hurled a bit of spitfire and then they made love – orchestral speaking – to some of the most explicit music ever written on the subject.

   The discovery scene was moving in the extreme, Hellekant’s sober narrative accompanied by fluttery flute/piccolo figures.  Kortekangas rang out in bitterness and frustration to slashing chords in the CSO.

   “Kullervo Goes to War” was not all derring-do, the obsessive fanfares at the end suggesting the futile satiety of slaughter.  Järvi paced the finale beautifully.  The men’s voices built from the hollow desolate opening to a chilling climax amid roiling strings as Kullervo fell on his sword.  They joined with the CSO in a magnificent statement of the Kullervo theme to bring the work to an end.

   The audience, seemingly stunned at first, rose in a prolonged ovation.

   Järvi opened with a spirited performance of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3.  Though a bit ragged in spots, overall polish was admirable and trumpeter Philip Collins rang out beautifully from the foyer.

   Repeat is 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall.