Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, 12.11.2001
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2001; Page C05
Friday night was the big Finnish blowout at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The orchestra and chorus were Finnish, the soloists were Finnish, the music was Finnish. The subject of the music was Finland. The composer was Finland’s greatest claim to 20th-century artistic fame, Jean Sibelius. Who could ask for anything more?
Scandinavian countries have developed an excellence in classical music disproportionate to their size and sway in the world, and Finland may be the most musical (and least Scandinavian) of them all. The country’s outstanding music education system has produced some of the world’s finest conductors and singers. One Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, has found audiences not only outside the country, but with listeners who wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to new music.
And with the dust settled on the 20th century, Sibelius has been rehabilitated with dual status: a modernist with critics who admire his experimentation with symphonic form, and a romantic with audiences who enjoy the coloristic sweep of his brooding and passionate language. Adding an extra measure of curiosity to Friday’s concert, sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, was the presence of Sibelius’s first major orchestral work, his huge symphonic poem with male chorus and two soloists, ”Kullervo.”
It is rarely played, given the raft of better Sibelius out there — seven full symphonies, all sui generis. Even the composer knew well enough to withdraw the piece after its first season of performances. ”Kullervo” resurfaced in its entirety after the composer’s death when the world, which had been impatient for Sibelius to produce an eighth symphony that wasn’t to be, turned its appetite for something new to the composer’s long-suppressed first tone poem.
Even in a reading as directly evocative and finely spun as Leif Segerstam’s interpretation with the Helsinki forces on Friday, the piece outlasts its material. There are passages of four and five minutes with all the power of the mature Sibelius — the lament of Kullervo for his sister is as wrenching as anything produced in the 19th-century opera house — and throughout the piece the ears pick up glints of the way he would use brass, the woodwind writing with naturalistic colors, the long pedal points that build tension in his later scores. But the piece feels cold because it tries so hard to be hot: The composer forces ideas, overdevelops his themes to the point of needless repetition, and tries too hard for climaxes that don’t have force. For dramatic power he adds brass; for a sense of finality, he ends some movements with an almost comical accumulation of too many final chords. Wham. Wham. Wham.
The Helsinki Philharmonic is only one of several fine orchestras from Finland. It is not easy to characterize. The playing is versatile and accomplished, the brass powerful, the lower strings rich in tone. The individual musicians are alert. But not all of its entries were clean (soft brass cues and subtle woodwind entrances were sometimes slightly staggered), not all of the double reeds produced the same evenness of tone of the best players. The violins do not produce what Americans think of as a warm, European tone. In fact, it sounds a bit like an American orchestra: a body of well-drilled musical chameleons, capable of impressive playing but not always an embracing sound.
The men of the Polytech Choir, however, were entirely impressive. The opening of their big movement, the central, oratorio-like setting of the story of incestuous love between the hero Kullervo and his sister, began with the force and vigor of one of Prokofiev’s tub-thumping socialist spectaculars. The tone is both beautiful and big, even when the tenors push high into the head voice.
Interspersed with the broad, Greek-chorus pronouncements of the men were two soloists, both beloved Finns: baritone Jorma Hynninen and mezzo-soprano Monica Groop. Hynninen now splits his time between singing and running Finland’s world-class summer opera festival at the big, squat castle of Savonlinna. He is a poetic singer, and though the voice may be aging, the technique and temperament are still fiery yet supple. His lament at the end of the third movement made for several of the best minutes of singing heard in Washington this season. Groop was also a pleasure, giving a strong sense of character to Kullervo’s sister.
The orchestra and chorus ended the evening with a rousing sprint through the patriotic tone poem ”Finlandia.” All that remained was to lock the doors, fill the concert hall with steam, and give the entire audience a sauna.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company