SIBELIUS:  'Kullervo' Symphony, Op. 7.  The Oceanides, Op. 73.  Karelia Suite, Op. 11.  Sc╦nes historiques -- Suite No. 1, Op. 25.  Tapiola, Op.112.  Finlandia, Op. 26.  Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 69a.  Serenade No. 2 in G minor, Op. 69b. 
 Kaili Kostia, soprano; Usko Viitanen, baritone/Helsinki University Male Voice Choir; Ida Haendel, violin/Bournemouth Symphony Orch/Paavo Berglund, cond.
 EMI CLASSICS 74200 (2 CDs) (ADD)  TT:  71:45 & 76:10

This was the first recording ever of Kullervo, a tone-poem with vocal soloists and chorus in five movements, composed in 1891-92 and labeled a symphony. It is one of the few works of his earliest period that Sibelius didn't revise later on; the manuscript went into a drawer after he conducted the premiere with mixed success in Helsinki, and was sold in 1922 because of a financial crisis. Otherwise it surely would have been burned along with a lot of earlier pieces, and however much (or little) of the Eighth Symphony he completed. During his lifetime Sibelius forbade any further performances, and thus Kullervo went unheard until his son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, conducted it posthumously in 1958.

It is a piece of decidedly mixed merit, although in this 1970 version with the Bournemouth Symphony and the Helsinki University Male Choir, Paavo Berglund did much to override weaknesses in the first, second, fourth and final movements, whereas in the third movement Sibelius found his own voice for the first time—thrillingly dramatized in this analog adventure. Both soloists in the central movement (as incestuous Kullervo and his long-lost sister) were stirring singers, while the resonant acoustic of the Guildhall in Southampton added to the general ardor. Fifteen years later, in Helsinki, Berglund remade Kullervo digitally with the then-current the University Choir men, again with two stirring singers. However, while that newer version is just three seconds longer, it seems much slower: the ginger had gone out of Berglund's reading. Not only that, it was spread over two CDs packaged as 74986-S, with only 20 additional minutes of music for male chorus and orchestra—the cantata Our Native Land (Op. 92) and the earlier Origin of Fire (op. 32).

EMI's "double forte" twin pack gets all of Berglund's lustier, edgier, more absorbing original version on a single CD, and adds 76 more minutes of music recorded between 1972 and 1976 with his Bournemouth players. There are vivid performances of The Oceanides, Op. 73 (commissioned by the Norfolk, Connecticut, Festival); the three-movement Karelia Suite; Suite No.1 of Sc╦nes historiques, Op. 25 (but no listing anywhere of its three movements, which are "All'Overtura," "Scene," and the semi-famous "Festivo") plus its companion piece Finlandia, Op. 26. But EMI interrupts the natural sequence with Tapiola, Sibelius' last official concert work. Berglund bettered this performance in a terrifying but undated digital recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (remastered on a Seraphim Classics CD, almost as inexpensive as a Naxos disc). The second CD ends with a sweetly passionate Ida Haendel as soloist in the two fanciful violin Serenades that comprise Op. 69.

It's a terrific package, albeit damaged by EMI's cheeseparing. By this I mean—apart from failing to identify the three Sc╦nes historiques—no text for movements 3 and 5 in Kullervo which feature chorus and soloists singing in Finnish! The layout of disc 2 is arbitrary, and the "program notesö helpless. You'll can read a bit more about Kullervo—background, and its source in The Kalevala, Finland's national folk epic—but the synopsis of its contents is reduced to a single compound sentence to accommodate German and French translations of the same skimpy notes by Peter Avis (who should, if he already hasn't, hide his head under a wing). These are sizeable caveats. We are talking major-league dumb, of shooting oneself in the foot to save a few bucks. The 1985 Kullervo program book fits in the new package, but to whom can one give it without a text? I haven't room myself for two versions of a post-student work, and besides, the 1970 is clearly superior in most particulars, including digital remastering. I will miss the two cantatas on disc 2, but at my age it's unlikely I might ever play them again.

Anyhow, this is another egregious example of why the "classical" record business has been deserted by younger listeners. I mean, at least they can understand what Eminem and his ilk are singing—horribile dictu! —but "lyrics" in Finnish, even about a brother who unwittingly boinks a sister he's never seen before, won't turn anyone on who doesn't speak Suomi.  How can a newcomer to Kullervo solve the dilemma? Damned if I know; but it makes me want to throw open a window and inveigh like Howard Beale against corporate dumbing worldwide—here in Great Britain, EMI's home-base.

R.D. (Feb. 2001)