in Reviews

Old tales, new sounds

by Martin Anderson

"It will come as no surprise that Dima Slobodeniouk and his Lahti musicians give all four works committed and lively performances, and that the BIS team have captured them in vivid sound."

There’s an expansive hinterland of Finnish orchestral music which recording labels have been remarkably reluctant to explore – an entire corpus of works by such composers as Kajanus, Wegelius, Melartin, Kaski, Raitio, Pingoud, Pergament, Pylkkänen and Marttinen – and many others, of course – which has only occasionally seen the attention of the microphones, even when it’s inspired by the national folk epic. It is therefore gratifying to see BIS grabbing this particular bull by the horns with this programme of Kalevala-based orchestral pieces.

Madetoja’s fourteen-minute symphonic poem Kullervo dates from early in his career (1913), but is nonetheless remarkable for the assuredness and inventiveness of the orchestration, and the confidence with which he develops the motifs which serve as the basis for its development – and, indeed, paradoxically, the unassertiveness of its ending. One assumes that there is a narrative logic behind the music, but Kimmo Korhonen’s otherwise informative booklet text doesn’t let us into the secret. Madetoja can’t have known Sibelius’ Kullervo, since Sibelius had withdrawn it; intriguingly, there are points of contact with Sibelius’ Skogsrået (‘The Wood Nymph’) – which Madetoja almost certainly wouldn’t have known either.

Uuno Klami’s engagement with the Kalevala began, paradoxically, in Paris, where he borrowed a copy from the Sorbonne in 1924, but the five-movement Kalevala Suite was not to emerge in its final form until 1943. I wonder how much Janáček knew: although Ravel is commonly (and correctly) cited as a major influence on Klami, one hears in the Kalevala Suite, at least, a Janáčekian fondness for abrupt rhythmic and melodic figures, often at the very bottom of the orchestra, and a like appetite for hammering them home in repetition, as one can hear in the first movement. The main melody of the second, by way of contrast, displays a kinship with the big tune at the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird – and it also suggests that Klami could have enjoyed a career in Hollywood.

Given the assiduity of the attention that BIS has paid to Sibelius, it’s surprising to discover that any of his orchestral music was yet to be recorded. It seems that Sibelius completed the Four Legends, Op. 22, in 1895, presented them in concert in 1896, and then revised them in 1897: this version of Lemminkäinen in Tuonela dates from that revision (they underwent a last, and definitive, revision in 1939). It was mainly a question of tightening the score, Korhonen tells us: Sibelius ditched the introduction and cut a large chunk from the middle section. For much of the twentieth century Sibelius was held up almost as the last voice of conservatism as his colleagues took the path towards modernism, but when you listen to Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, you can hear just how radical he was being, and as early as 1895/1897: the repeated patterns that string players hate but which later became a feature of minimalism, abrupt and angular gestures that Stravinsky may have learned from, and astounding liberty in his use of the orchestra and a degree of violence that must have left his first audiences blinking in amazement.

The name of Tauno Pylkkänen (1918–80) is the least familiar here, but when you hear his ten-minute symphonic poem Kullervo Goes to War (1942), you’ll wonder why his music doesn’t get more performances. OK, in its present company the musical language is relatively orthodox, but it has drama, colour, energy and power: audiences would love it.

It will come as no surprise that Dima Slobodeniouk and his Lahti musicians give all four works committed and lively performances, and that the BIS team have captured them in vivid sound.

Scenes from the Kalevala

Madetoja Kullervo, Op. 15; Klami Kalevala Suite, Op. 23; Sibelius Four Legends, Op. 22: ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’; Pylkkänen Kullervo Goes to War
Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Dima Slobodeniouk