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It’s impossible for us to know how Sibelius’s choral symphony Kullervo struck its first listeners more than 100 years ago, but it must have sounded as strange and unwieldy as anyone had heard. Here was an incantatory epic, its raw majesty coloured by folkloric melody and brooding timbre, spread across a vast canvas on a current of operatic proportions.
Written before Sibelius embarked on his great journey of compression, Kullervo remained the estranged relative of his oeuvre until after his death, but is now more familiar. Yet the best performances are still defined by the way they conjure its runic mystery. No one knows this better than Osmo Vänskä, whose return to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for the first time since he gave up its principal conductorship four years ago, was the cause of much rejoicing in Glasgow.
His concert formed the second part of “Sibelius Revisited”, a series designed to question why this composer’s music goes so far beyond conventional symphonic logic. It’s not as if Scotland has never had a chance to grapple with the Sibelius enigma. The music has belonged there ever since Ian Whyte’s broadcast performances from Glasgow in the 1940s, heard and applauded by the composer.
Alexander Gibson was a consistent champion; so was Vänskä. And yet when his gifted successor Ilan Volkov opened “Sibelius Revisited” with the Fourth Symphony, there was no mistaking the way this music eludes interpreters who are not temperamentally attuned.
Vänskä is a less “natural” conductor than Volkov but has a peerless understanding of Sibelius and a rare ability in performance to find the mean between discipline and energy. His account of the Third Symphony plumbed extremes of temperament and tempo – and yet, in the very act of negotiating dramatic shifts of balance, the musical argument accumulated in strength. The same was true of Kullervo. Vänskä tempered its ungainliness by controlling its drama, to which the 60-strong YL Helsinki Male Voice Choir brought thrilling finesse.
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