This concert provided not only an opportunity to hear Sibeliuss first large scale composition, Kullervo, but also that of a conductor, choir and orchestra working at a peak of musical insight and delivery.
Consisting of five movements lasting 75 minutes, Kullervo was completed when Sibelius was 26 and enjoyed a successful premiere in 1892. However, Sibelius chose not to publish the work and it disappeared from the repertoire during his lifetime, not being heard again until 1958. Sibelius was obviously conscious of the works imperfections, but for the most part Kullervo is a composition of great originality and power, having taken its inspiration from the Finnish mythological epic the Kalevala.
From the outset, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia projected the score with an extraordinary level of drama and intensity, capturing the forward momentum and surging energy of the first movement and the tragic import of the second. The strings realisation of Sibelius unusual sonorities was exemplary, and the playing of woodwinds and brass outstanding.
The long third movement, Kullervo and his sister, brought singing of splendid attack and sonority from the 100 strong Swedish male choir, Orphei Drngar (singing in Finnish), as well as vivid contributions from Finnish soloists Jukka Rasilainen and Monica Groop. Ive rarely seen a conductor more physically involved in a performance than Salonen was here, and the result was music making of almost unbearable tension and excitement.
After a virtuosic account of the purely orchestral fourth movement, the Swedish choir made a powerful contribution to Kullervos dramatic death scene in the fifth movement. This was an unforgettable performance of Kullervo and a phenomenal achievement by all concerned.
Earlier in the concert, Salonen partnered Viktoria Mullova in a performance of Brahms Violin Concerto. The performance benefited from Mullovas purity of tone and expressive playing, but Salonens orchestral accompaniment was rather reserved and the first movement was only partially successful. The results were more moving in the Adagio, largely thanks to Gordon Hunts fine account of the oboe solo, and the finale was suitably energetic, although not especially joyful.
Salonen commenced the concert with an address to the audience in commemoration of the Philharmonia Orchestras Conductor Emeritus, Kurt Sanderling, who died on 17 September, two days before his 99th birthday. This was followed by an eloquent performance of The Death of Mlisande from Sibeliuss suite Pelleas et Mlisande.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk