The Spiritual and the Visceral
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 (Arranged by Michael Steinberg)
Jean Sibelius: Kullervo, Symphonic Poem for Singers, Men’s Chorus and Orchestra, Opus 7
Päivi Nisula (Soprano), Hannu Niemelä (Baritone)
Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat (YL) Male Voice Choir, Matti Hyökki (Chorus Master), Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (Music Director and Conductor)
O. Vänskä (© Richard Termine)
That powerhouse conductor Osmo Vänskä came to New York with his Minnesota Orchestra and did what he does best. He took a pair of well-known composers, a pair of very rare works and gave them both such personal propulsion that one didn’t have a chance to reflect on the value of the music until minutes after the applause.
Actually, it wasn’t difficult to gauge each work on its own merits. Mr. Vänskä began with an extraordinary performance of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge arranged for full string orchestra by the late Michael Steinberg, who also provided the program notes. The next work I had never heard live in New York, but so loud, exciting, brazen and sometimes even thrilling was Sibelius’ very early oratorio Kullervo that one didn’t realize until later how it was more specious than spacious.
And if nothing else, the performance of Beethoven and Sibelius demonstrated that musical “evolution” is a meaningless word. The Grosse Fuge, written almost 70 years before Kullervo, is dissonant, eccentric, digs deeper and deeper into the primordial and spiritual subconscious, generating ideas which can never be put into words. The Sibelius was fun, physical, and very much a gorgeous graphic novel.
We have heard several Grosse Fuge arrangements this past year. Some for the original quartet, one for Beethoven’s own four-hand translation, and one last week by Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss on two pianos. Mr. Steinberg based his string transcription on the four-hand transcription, sticking scrupulously to the composer’s own dynamic marks. The main differences came with his doubling of basses with cello, giving a more emotional impact.
But Mr. Steinberg must have discovered something else. That even played with full string orchestra (and the Minnesota Orchestra has a fine section), the work has a lucidity which makes the work sound even more eccentric. I’ve been trying to think of any other piece comparable to this for sheer musical aberration, and nothing comes to mind, except, perhaps Strauss’s Metamorphoses for 23 solo strings. (The Stravinsky string works are as disciplined as an equation.) Whatever it was, the resonances of Beethoven’s far-reaching unrepeatable work stayed with me long after the louder and more physically exciting Sibelius.
Not that Kullervo is bad music. As an epic, it could compare to Schoenberg’s own Danish epic, Gurre-Lieder, written a few years later. But after its first performances in 1892, Sibelius withdrew it from circulation, and it wasn’t played until after his death. Those “withdrawal symptoms” are hard to fathom. Much of the music is like his Historical Scenes, the choral music is not only unusual by itself, the men singing in unison, with a kind of ancient melody, and the major theme is most singular, going back and forth from major to minor in the same measure. True, a lot of the music has more the feel of Bruckner than Sibelius, but not one of the five sections in the 75-minute work exhausts us.
The story to our ears sounds rather odd, even primitive. But Sibelius imitated the ancient Greeks. Since the Athenian audiences knew the full story, they only wanted an interpretation. Sibelius’s Finnish listeners knew the full saga of Kullervo, so he only gave us parts. An orchestral “growing up”, his attempts to seduce two women and and rape of his own sister. (The Carnegie Hall annotator mistakenly said it was the same woman.) Finally, her suicide, his battle against an uncle, and then his suicide.
With the exception of that “battle section”, which could have been used as background for a silent cowboy film, Sibelius gave us the most spacious pictures from the hero’s progress. Yes, we have all the Sibelius earmarks here, from the chattering oboes to the plaintive clarinet solos to the strings whispering across the musical landscape. But we also have those beautiful men’s choruses, sung by Finland’s unique Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat Male Voice Choir. Sibelius had written choruses for this group, who could rival any Welsh chorus for clarity, strength and resonance throughout the hall.
(No women were used in the “Symphonic Poem”, since no Finnish women would have had the audacity to sing about rape and incest.)
Kullervo himself was sung by Hannu Niemelä, most obviously a Wagnerian, whose one monologue about regretting copulating with his sister was emotionally powerful. Ditto for Finnish soprano Päivi Nisula who almost speaks her abuse to Kullervo before her long death throes.
The real hero, though was Osmo Vänskä, a conductor who never shirks from “becoming” the dynamics he is conducting. A player told me his baton technique is faultless. But Mr. Vänskä’s essence is that his excitement–for the painfully enigmatic Beethoven and the instinctually emotive Sibelius–was expressively infectious.