Sibelius: Kullervo (CD review)

Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo-soprano; Nathan Gunn, baritone; Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Men's Chorus. Telarc CD-80665.

The choral symphony Kullervo (1892), which Jean Sibelius preferred to call a symphonic poem, was the composer's first large-scale work, written when he was in his mid twenties. He based the work's five episodes on the folk legends of Kullervo, a tragic hero of Finnish myth.

But after its success, Sibelius said he regretted having written it, his not wanting to be typecast as relying only on nationalistic spirit. He apparently wanted to branch out and experiment and not be pigeonholed, and thus he shelved the work for most of the rest of his life, and folks didn't publish it until after his death.

The tale of Kullervo is fairly melodramatic, beginning with a lengthy introduction recounting the character's youth, then his incestuous encounter with his sister, his going to battle, and his eventual suicide. Kullervo's misadventures make for an epic if somewhat bombastic piece of music, and it doesn't really stand up well to his later symphonies, so maybe he was right in abandoning it. Nevertheless, there are any number of felicitous moments that make the piece worthwhile, for me the section titled "Kullervo's Youth" standing out under conductor Robert Spano and his Atlanta Symphony forces.

Oddly (for this label, which is usually pretty dependable), the Telarc sound is somewhat muted, slightly soft and round and not helped by Spano's rather somber reading of most of the score. I wasn't sure at first if it were simply my ears and the lateness of the hour affecting my judgment until I put on a comparison disc, Sir Colin Davis's London Symphony account on RCA, that things became more apparent. Not only were the RCA sonics clearer and more dynamic, Davis's interpretation was more exciting, more dramatic, more incisive, and ultimately more heroic. So, I'm afraid I found this Spano account a little disappointing for the most part.


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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