Peter Mattei (baritone); Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Colin Davis recorded a Kullervo Symphony with the LSO as part of his often lousy complete symphony cycle for RCA. His ongoing series of remakes for the orchestra's own label have been atoning in large measure for the sins previously committed against a composer that Davis knows and understands as well as anyone alive today. Whereas the earlier Kullervo was as dull as dishwater, this newcomer is simply thrilling, a performance that goes straight to the top of recommended recordings, which have been surprisingly abundant considering the work's obscurity until the last couple of decades. The best include two by Berglund (both EMI), Järvi father and son (BIS and Virgin), Segerstam (Chandos), Panula (Naxos), Vänskä (BIS again), and Salonen (Sony). Most of these are very good: that earlier Davis recording was the worst of the bunch.
So: Why is this release so much better than the previous one? In the first place, Davis has knocked about 10 minutes off of his earlier timing. The performance no longer spills over onto a second disc, but beyond reasons of mere speed and economy, all of the tension formerly lacking is found in abundance here. Whereas previously, in the first movement, Davis settled for a sort of generalized atmospheric quality, here Kullervo's theme has shape and muscularity. Kullervo's Youth, arguably Sibelius' first fully characteristic symphonic movement, acquires the necessary gruffness and edge. Listen to the ruggedness and forward momentum in the choral narrations that open Kullervo and His Sister. The men of the LSO Chorus are outstanding, as are the two soloists, Peter Mattei and Monica Groop.
Kullervo's Death has extraordinary power and concentration, with Davis taking special pains to bring out the details of Sibelius' often eerie string writing. The closing orchestral funeral march is particularly gripping, the closing bars grimly heroic. In short, this is a great performance by any standard, and it's also extremely well recorded, more warmly than many in this series, whether in stereo or SACD multichannel surround formats. As for the work itself, each hearing only makes Sibelius' ban on performances during his lifetime ever more incomprehensible. Perfect it may not be, at least as compared to his later symphonies and tone poems, but it is wholly characteristic and every bit as fresh and new as, say, Mahler's Das Klagende Lied. When treated with such compelling force and urgency, it's impossible to deny Kullervo its rightful place as a major, even great piece. Fantastic! [1/3/2006]