Scenes from the Kalevala review – the Finnish epic poem that inspired a nation’s composers | Classical music


The Kalevala, the Finnish epic poem describing the creation of the world and the journeys and adventures of the people of the land of Kalevala, first appeared in print in 1835; an expanded version, almost twice as long, followed 14 years later. Its appearance proved hugely significant in the development of Finland’s national identity and the country’s progress towards independence (which was eventually achieved in 1917), and its influence on 19th- and 20th-century Finnish artists was immense.

For Sibelius the Kalevala was famously a lifelong source of inspiration, from his earliest large-scale work, Kullervo, to his last, the symphonic poem Tapiola. But he was by no means the only composer to write works based on the epic and the stories it contains, and three of those pieces are brought together in this collection from the Lahti orchestra under their former music director, Dima Slobodaniouk. Inevitably it includes some Sibelius too: the first recording of the 1897 version of Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, fractionally longer than what we know as the third movement of his Lemminkäinen Suite.

Scenes from the Kalevala.
Scenes from the Kalevala. Photograph: PR handout

The other composers represented belong to the generations that followed in Sibelius’s intimidating footsteps. It’s revealing that their Kalevala works all date from relatively early in their careers, as if a coming-to-terms musically with their country’s most significant work of literature was a necessary rite of passage for them all. Leevi Madetoja‘s Kullervo dates from 1913, but though Madetoja had been a pupil of Sibelius, his compact, 13-minute symphonic poem portraying one of the epic’s “heroes” owes more to Tchaikovsky than it does to his teacher. Tauno Pylkännen’s Kullervo Goes to War, completed in 1942, is much closer to Sibelius, and a taut, powerfully effective piece that surely should be better known outside Finland than it is.

Uuno Klami’s Kalevala Suite is much the most ambitious of the three works. It’s the most uneven of them too, but in many ways the most interesting, as the only one that clearly distances itself from the world of Sibelius. Stravinsky, especially The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, is very obviously the dominant influence in the five movements, which portray different episodes in the epic, from The Creation of the World to The Forging of the Sampo (a mysterious, magical device that confers riches and good luck on its owner).

Taken together the three works and the Sibelius rarity make a fascinating collection of music that will be totally unfamiliar internationally; if none of them is a neglected masterpiece, all are very well worth hearing, especially in such characterful and accomplished performances as these.

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