qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

A Fairy Tale (or two)

Many years ago, my father had an LP of Sibelius tone poems, and I particularly liked En Saga. For me it's quintessential Sibelius: dark, rhythmic, brooding, with flashes of energy. For several years I've scoured the Proms programme in vain for a performance (somehow I missed it in 2006, I imagine due to the Shostakovich anniversary), and so this year, nothing was going to get in my way.

Then I realised that it was the weekend of the Reading festival, and further, First Great Western trains announced a strike for the weekend. It was as if some nordic gods were trying to thwart me. I repeatedly checked that enough trains would be running, and I determined the best course of action was to go early (in case of traffic jams in Reading) and park in the station car park (I usually go to King's Meadow, close by the station, but it's used as a pick up/drop off point for the festival so becomes untenable). They say you must suffer for your art.

Despite arriving around 1pm I was still at the point in the queue where it looked unlikely I would be on the rail. I think the attraction for most people, unlike me, was the second half of the concert, Kullervo. The weather was overcast, and later into the afternoon, but earlier than forecast, the rain began. The pre-Prom talk was about Kullervo. I'm sure it's just coincidence it was programmed for the same week as the publication of Tolkien's take on the story.

I ended up in a central position in the second row of the arena, which turned out to be a good place, as the themes in En Saga frequently played around from one section of the strings to another. It seemed to me that Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra with particular passion. The programme notes translated the title just as "a fairy tale", implying the generic form rather than a particular story. Indeed, the notes referred not only to the Finnish Kalevala but also to the Norse Edda. In the Q&A section of the talk it was noted that Sibelius repeatedly revised the work. Given my previous comments about the work, it's interesting that Sibelius also referred to it as autobiographical, even though it's an early work.

For the second half, Kullervo, the orchestra were joined by Johanna Rusanen-Kartano, Waltteri Torikka, the men's voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the Polytech Choir (from Finland). After some initial success, Sibelius withdrew Kullervo from performance, apart from some Kalevala anniversary performances of the third movement (where all the action takes place). I've often read that his first symphony has echoes of Bruckner in it, but never been all that convinced; here, however, the references were clear, with repeated brass chorales. Perhaps it's a hint of a road subsequently not taken. The first two movemens were purely orchestral; though the choir had some variation, the two soloists both almost shouted their words fortissimo at each other. To an English audience it all seems quite blunt.
Kullervo: Get up into my sleigh, O maiden,/come and lie upon my furs!
Sister: May Death come into thy sleigh,/may Disease lie upon thy furs!

At this point, they don't know they are brother and sister; it's only, um, afterwards that this becomes apparent. And so on, and so on. Kullervo's sister throws herself into a whirlpool, whilst Kullervo goes off to fight a war; later he falls on his own sword. Evidently Lemminkäinen wasn't the only bad guy in Finnish mythology. Something about the long dark nights, etc. Musically, I thought it was interesting, but it was quite long; the Lemminkäinen Legends are probably more successful as a work. At least the concert finished on time and there were no additional problems with the trains.
Tags: music
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