Tonight in the Tschaikowsky Hall, the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv went through the motions of Kullervo by Sibelius.

This is a work which may require Scandinavians to get just right.  Based on an ancient Finnish legend, the story will never appear in a Hollywood film, and has – to my knowledge – only been set twice, both times by Finnish composers (Sibelius and Leevi Madetoja).  Kullervo, the tragic anti-hero, is sold into slavery as a child.  He escapes, but whatever he does leads to evil.  He eventually rapes a woman, but then discovers after the fact that it is his long-lost sister.  When they realize this, she drowns herself and he goes into war hoping to redeem himself by being killed in battle.  Unfortunately, he proves invincible and cannot die in battle.  He happens to return to the spot where he raped his sister and she killed herself, a spot so evil that nothing will grow there any more.  He asks his magic sword to kill him in this very place, and the sword obliges.

Needless to say, such a story requires a dark and dismal reading.  Sibelius got the music right, but Pletnëv on the podium did not, making the piece too light and lyrical.  I also wonder if Pletnëv had properly rehearsed the orchestra, which missed cues and botched timing.  I would also have hoped that Pletnëv could manage to produce a more remorseful sound from his orchestra (a world-class ensemble he founded twenty years ago), but I am not sure this music spoke to him.  Only the brass and the percussion, at points of climax, played with adequate shock.

The male chorus of the Moscow Academy of Choral Arts had its head buried in the Finnish-language text.  Probably for that reason, Pletnëv saw fit to bring in two Finns to sing the solo parts.  However, mezzo Tuija Knihtilä and baritone Hannu Niemelä did not always manage to make themselves fully audible above the orchestra.


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