For many decades, Jean Sibelius' Kullervo was the greatest work that he wrote that no one heard. Although a resounding success at its 1892 premiere in Helsinki, the typically self-critical Sibelius withdrew it in 1893 and never again allowed its performance while he lived, save a lone revival in 1936. Although it re-entered Sibelius' catalog in the 1960s, Kullervo didn't really enter the repertoire until the 1990s. This is oddly appropriate in a way, because Kullervo is one of Sibelius' freshest works, brimming with ideas, drama, and rich with musical innovations that place Sibelius on par with the most advanced music of his time in 1892. Before 1990, there were only two recordings of Kullervo, and by 2006 there were 14 made altogether, although not all of them are in print.
LSO Live's Sibelius: Kullervo features Sir Colin Davis' take on this unusual score, recorded in two concerts given at the Barbican in London in the fall of 2005. He is joined by vocal soloists Peter Mattei and Monica Groop who, it should be stated, do a splendid job in the rather limited vocal parts of this work, which formally resembles a symphony but draws in elements of tone poem and opera. As good as they and the London Symphony Chorus are in this recording, it's Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra who grab the brass ring. Davis brings a novel perspective to Kullervo in that he punches up the rhythmic content of the piece and keeps it going at a seemingly rapid clip. Yet this does not make it sound like Davis is anxious to catch the bus -- Esa-Pekka Salonen's 1993 Sony recording of Kullervo sounds like it is slower, but Davis actually takes two minutes longer overall. With his attention turned to the rhythm, Davis points up the Russian-ness of Kullervo, something not at all apparent in Salonen's recording, where any rough edges tend to be smoothed out. Nevertheless, the influence on Sibelius of Rimsky-Korsakov is obvious in this recording. Perhaps this is one reason why the composer sought to repress such a fine piece of music; it remains a mystery never fully explained.
The ambience of the live Barbican recording is dry, but this adds to its excitement and electricity, and all orchestral sections, soloists, and chorus are represented with crystal clarity. One cannot automatically say this Kullervo rises to the top of the pack; the Salonen, although out of print, is still too good for that. Nonetheless, Davis' version is a viable alternative to every other one out there, has something to offer even to those who already own a Kullervo, and still more to listeners who don't know this amazing work at all.