Osmo Vänskä

Sibelius: Kullervo; Kortekangas: Migrations

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Conductor Osmo Vänskä has used his residency at the Minnesota Orchestra to revisit the symphonic music of Jean Sibelius, which he recorded some years ago in acclaimed version with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in his native Finland. In Vänskä's hands, the meaty epic Kullervo has always been a crowd favorite, and it was a natural for the new version offered here. What's new? The energy of live performance for one thing, with the recorded product artfully stitched together from three nights of music at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The key vocal soloist, mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi, is actually the same one who appeared on the Lahti Symphony recording, back in the '90s, and she's glorious. Sample the deliberate slow movement "Kullervo's Youth," which in no way lacks intensity: it seems to bespeak great natural forces, and the whole orchestra has a remarkable quality of seeming to flow slowly in a distant epic world. The other major new factor here is the presence of a new work, Migrations, by Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas. The work was commissioned both to mark the Finnish migrations to Minnesota and to provide a companion piece for Kullervo (it was actually intended as a prelude and might have functioned better in that spot in the recording, but was probably relegated to the end so that Kullervo would fit onto the first CD of the double set). It offers a mix of instrumental and vocal movements, the latter set to texts by Minnesota Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa. "The Man Lived in a Tree" is a delightful bit of Nordic Americana, but you'd be hard-pressed to connect the words in the piece as a whole to the specific theme of Finnish migration to America without prior consultation or explanation, and Finland's YL Male Vocal Choir is not overly clear in their English enunciation. They do, however, provide a stirring performance of Sibelius' Finlandia, Op. 26, in a unique version that combines the orchestral original with a choral arrangement Sibelius made in 1940; it was one of the last things he wrote, and it wraps up a concert like this in a very satisfying way. This is a worthwhile purchase for the legions who think Vänskä is the great Sibelius interpreter of our time.

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