The Minnesota Orchestra performed Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo last weekend, and I still haven’t recovered.
Music is always difficult to describe, but this piece verges on impossible. It’s long, for one. Its scope rivals a DeMille-directed Biblical epic. It is a glimpse into the very heart of terror and savagery and ice. It enshrines the ghost of a young Sibelius. In Kullervo, Sibelius began to chop a road through a dark and snowy forest. He may have abandoned that road, ultimately preferring another path of tighter, leaner construction. But his decision makes the road untaken all the more fascinating. As listeners, we stand at the edge of Kullervo and peer into the vast unexplored darkness beyond.
Kullervo is a character from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic. As I understand the story… A bloody feud has erupted between Kullervo’s father and his uncle, Untamo. During the massacre, Untamo spares the infant Kullervo, opting instead to raise and torment him, but Untamo lives to regret his choice. For magic sleeps within Kullervo, leavened by the despair of a boy and then a man with nothing left to lose. Untamo tries to kill Kullervo, but because of the savage magic, he is always unsuccessful. Finally Untamo sells Kullervo into slavery. Kullervo’s magic kills his new master’s cruel wife, and he flees into the dark woods, where he discovers that his parents survived Untamo’s attack. Might happiness be possible after all? But this happiness has come too easily, and fate and lust intervene. On a fateful sleigh ride, Kullervo meets three maidens. Two successfully rebuff his advances. The third succumbs to him and they have sex. They realize too late that they are siblings. Horrified by her shame, Kullervo’s sister drowns herself. Kullervo goes to war with his uncle, does battle with a sword given to him by the god of war, and kills Untamo and Untamo’s family. And yet the violence yields no catharsis. He returns to the site of the seduction. He takes out his sword and asks it: would you kill me? The sword answers:
Why, at my own whim should I not eat up your flesh and drink your evil blood? I, who have devoured innocent flesh and drunk the blood of the innocent?”
There is no answer to that. So Kullervo rams the hilt of sword into the ground and falls upon it, his blood trickling down to fertilize the “mournful flowers” of the heath.
Last year, the Minnesota Orchestra finished recording all seven numbered Sibelius symphonies. Their next studio recording will be of Mahler 5, which they are setting down in June. (What’s more, at a pre-concert talk on Saturday night, BIS producer Rob Suff revealed that Minnesota will be committing “at least” six Mahler symphonies to disc.) So this February, in this pivot between Sibelius and Mahler, two antithetical titans if there ever were, the orchestra chose to record a brilliant bridge work: Kullervo, a young Sibelius’s five-movement, seventy-five minute extravaganza for orchestra, mezzo-soprano, baritone, and male chorus. Is it a symphony, a la Mahler’s Resurrection? Opera? Oratorio? All of the above? Who knows? Who cares? Unlike the other symphonies, though, BIS, Osmo, and Minnesota chose to record Kullervo (more or less) live.
And you could tell from the moment you entered the auditorium. Microphones had sprouted from the floor and stage, hanging from tall stands, looking a bit like high-tech banana trees. The traditional Orchestra Hall pre-concert recording asking audience members to silence their electronic devices was scrapped. Instead, principal cellist Tony Ross actually stood up and asked audiences to turn their phones off entirely, because the microphones might pick up phones set to vibrate. Throughout the night, players cringed as they reached forward to turn pages, painfully aware of the electronic ears spying at their stands. Coughs were smudged in elbows. We didn’t dare touch our programs. It all combined to make an intoxicatingly intense atmosphere in which to experience music.
The first movement of Kullervo – the Introduction – begins with murmuring strings setting the stage for the snowy epic. The immersion was instantaneous. From the very start, there were uncomfortably quiet dynamics, beautiful whistling winds, slow intense glances creeping across the stage between principal players, then those same glances receding back down to their instruments. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the orchestra’s brass sound so full and pungent.
The second movement – Kullervo’s Youth – speaks of drudgery. Broken spirits. Exhaustion. Since this performance, its ominous chanting rhythm has seeped into my blood; I’ll awake in the middle of the night and hear it in the darkness. Sibelius twisted it into so many different permutations, each sounding so very different from the next, but all ringing true. Vänskä takes it deadly slow, emphasizing its grave marking, its blank and hopeless qualities.
The third movement’s sleigh ride is a perfectly judged portrait of galloping horses – a too-fast driver – wailing winter winds – irrepressible energy and lust. Simple skittering themes repeat too often, too quickly. The YL Male Voice Choir thundered away as the orchestra galloped beneath. “Kul–ler–vo,” they sang again and again. “Kul-ler-vo.” The name took on the air of an ancient pagan chant. Methodically, the soloists stood and sang, the man beckoning to the woman, the woman refusing, the man beckoning again, the woman refusing, their turning down and sitting, again, again, and again, each time the tension growing.
Finally, orchestral orgasm gave way to the protagonists singing their stories. Their mutual realizations drip through the music like Kullervo’s blood dripping down his sword.
Exceptionally bouncy, jaunty playing followed in the closest thing this piece has to a scherzo, Kullervo Goes to Battle. The electricity and force of concentration onstage was almost unbearable to watch. At one point my shoulders gave an involuntary physiological shudder. In the final movement, Kullervo’s Death, the chorus drifted back into the audience’s consciousness, their musical lines weaving ancient pagan spells, casting slow and mesmerizing crescendos.
So the young man died like this,
Kullervo, the hero, died thus.
In this way the hero’s life ended,
The unlucky hero died just so.
There are some concerts in which the performance is difficult to write about separately from the music, because some nights a performance becomes the music, and vice versa. This was one of those nights. I understand now why Alex Ross was bewitched into his famous 2010 review of the Minnesota Orchestra, when they played this very same repertoire at Carnegie Hall. At the beginning of the essay he writes (rightly) that “the impulse to pit one orchestra against another is as regrettable as it is irresistible,” and then he finishes it with the sentence, “For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” There is something about this orchestra and this conductor and this repertoire that defies logic and embraces magic. It is something elemental, overwhelming, and even troubling.
If the recording captures an ounce of the excitement of the original performance, this disc will be important. (And I didn’t even mention the new commission that started off the night in Olli Kortekangas’s Migrations, or the barn-burning Finlandia finale, both of which will be included with Kullervo on the first release of the disc.) Even noted perfectionist Rob Suff admitted in the pre-concert talk that he had gotten everything he needed for a successful recording from Thursday morning and Friday night’s performances, plus the patch session on Saturday afternoon. Saturday night, he said, would just be icing on the cake.
On Friday’s Minnesota Public Radio broadcast, in the pre-recorded interview, Osmo was asked about the story of Kullervo. He answered: “To be honest, it’s about life. Just you open the newspaper of today…you can find all the same stories, so nothing new. It’s a very old story. I would say it’s a classic.” Then, with an intense knowing (you could hear his eyebrows raising in his voice, and a grim smile):
“Life is not always beautiful.”