Sunday, March 10, 2013


It's important to me to make note of how very good was the Sydney Symphony's Kullervo, with Vladimir Ashkenazy seemingly at one with the work. Three weeks have rushed by since we went, yet I think about it a lot.

It will be broadcast on Thursday 14 March 1300 (Australian Eastern summer time)  a time slot which seems rather obtuse, and certainly not that accessible for the working man. It's a recording I can just hope makes it to the CD stage.

The first half of the programme was the Ravel's Left Hand Concerto with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet which was rather as epxected - not exactly Ashkanzy's natural home and played with considerable physicalness, which included leaving the stool and clutching the Steinway with the right hand to run the keyboard with his body as much as five fingers, by M. Bacouzet.

Kullervo is Opus 7. Sibelius was 26 when it premiered in 1892 with a scratch orchestra in a Finland now annexed to Russia having been sectioned off from the Swedish Kingdom earlier in the 19th Century. Reactions were mixed. There was sneering, there was uncertainty, there were reservations, there were cries of treachery for the use of the Finnish language (for a very Finnish legend mind you) as Sibelius gave first notice of the nationalism which would be his hallmark, and then there was the laurel wreath presented to Sibelius by his friend, the conductor Robert Kajanus, and on which were inscribed the final lines of the Kalevala on which Kullervo is based:

"This way therefore leads the pathway,
Here the path lies newly opened ..."

It is a huge work, an 80 minute oratorio / tone poem of substantial incubation.

It was, to cut to the chase, a simply maginficent performance for little ol' me, hearing it live for the first time (the previous outing in Sydney was in the 70s) and pretty worked up about it too I was. Everything was right. Ashkenazy is so well connected with this composer, the orchestra responded wonderfully to his every insight, and the all male choir was in fantastic form (in Finnish what's more) under acting music director Elizabeth Scott - take a big bow boys and girl. And then there was the supreme gift, thank you Mr Ashkenzy (for not much longer can we call you 'Our Vlad', as we tend to informalise those we love most) - two Finnish soloists in the absolutely splendid form of Helena Juntunen and Ville Rusanen.

Helena Juntunen and Ville Rusanen. You can hear them on March 14 if you're not down the mines like I will be.

Ashkenazy played it very darkly, which is what it is for sure. After the hauntingly restrained first two movements - a mysterious flight of ideas of youth (composer and hero/anti-hero) from which would emerge the shocking story of lost childhoods, lust and incest, guilt, self-condemnation and suicide - came the tragedy. And Ashkenazy played it very darkly.

The chorus, a Greek chorus of dark knowing tragedy, from entry to the final "and so he perished", was relentlessly good, these men in black getting around the language as if their own, with a beautiful sombre tone replete with doom. The steady swaying funeral beat was hypnotic. You could only yield to it and go with it, swept into the darkness, as did they.

Ville Rusanen's Kullervo ran the gamut. From his almost naive heady insistent "Come, girl, into my sledge" of young libido uncontained, he morphed into a darker voiced fallen human, angry, judging and brutally condemning of self.

Now, Helena Juntunen simply stunned me. Her confident presence told all. She had its measure. In a equally astonishing display of vocal development, rather the reverse of her brother's, she devolved from a fiesty object of seduction, initially wildly rejecting with spitting conviction the sleigh man in those woods, into a soft hued girl, with lilting beauty of such sweetness as to break your heart, and a soft grained tremolo like a maiden's curls, as the winds rippled behind her, as she recalled her childhood and the realisation of the horror of the self alone, such that she wished herself dead.

If only I get to hear this again; then again, revisiting such specialness doesn't always work.

(To the stage right of the podium, a beaming Mr Ashkenazy and Elizabeth Scott; to the left, soloists Ville Rusanen and Helena Juntunen)

For the record, your blogger visiting Ainola (2009)


Susan Scheid said...

You have described this performance so beautifully! I don't know this work well, but you remind me it's well worth getting to know better. Please do let us know if you spot it on CD, will you? And how nice to see you there at Aionola! You must have seen David's blog post series of his visit there, no? It was wonderful. I do hope I have a chance to get there someday.

David said...

Such first-time hearings of great works - and this is surely one, at least in parts - become scarce, so how lucky to experience this one in the hands of Ashkenazy (whose Sibelius I love, whereas you know how I feel about Vanska). Isn't that 5/4 third-movement ride a thrill?

Mind you, last time I heard it, with Sir Colin Davis conducting the LSO, Peter Mattei - usually magnificent, a fine and handsome actor too - couldn't cut the mustard in the big solo accompanied by crashes towards the end. Stopped once, went off, came back, stopped again. We never heard the end of that movement in that performance.

I think I knew you'd been to Ainola, but how good to have the ocular evidence. I count my four snowbound hours there as among the happiest of my life. It's very Sue, don't you think, from what we know of her?

wanderer said...

I do know how you feel about Vanska. I have to say however they are am especially fond of his 7th Symphony, one of favorite things (rain drops on ... )

Yes, very Sue indeed. We were there in summer although looking at the coat, it was none too warm. I can imagine it snowbound now, and what it was like for him, that fireplace, that isolation, that inner searching. We sat alone under the pines and meditated. We were the only ones there.

The third movement ride is thrilling indeed, in fact all the way thence. Yet, I loved it all, even the first two movements which on first acquantaince I confess sounded a wee bit like Sibelius Soup. Maybe that was Vanska! (Anyway, his recording has Lilli Passikivi and I'm a bit of a fan-boy there.)

Susan Scheid said...

I have got a bit behind here, I see, and first off missed this "very Sue," which has made me laugh (assuming I am the very Sue, though perhaps that's presumptuous). I did love visiting Ainola just through David's posts and have no doubt I'd love the real thing. I'll remember to bring my coat, even in summer!