Thursday 3 September 2015

Cat Kullervo

Mauri Kunnas's image of the hero setting off to war in his children's classic The Canine Kalevala is actually used to illustrate another heroic adventure in the Finnish epic, the journey of Lemminkäinen to woo the Maiden of the North, but it's still a brilliant parody of the famous Akseli Gallen-Kallela fresco which I also used as the lead image for Sebastian Scotney's review of a transformative Prom (as my notes were reprinted, it wouldn't have been right to take it for myself).

Because Lemminkäinen's mother is the real heroine of his not terribly heroic tale, there she is in Kunnas's picture trying to stop him setting out. And since this Lemminkäinen is a member of 'a small but tough clan of cats' who live between 'a tribe of wild and woolly dogs' in the land of Kalevala and 'a pack of mean and wicked wolves' in 'the gloomy North', he can't have a wolf as companion, so an old crow takes that place. Why didn't Kunnas tell the Kullervo story? Because a tragic tale of accidental incest followed by the suicides of the siblings would probably be too much for his young audience. Though he doesn't steer clear of Lemminkäinen's gruesome death in the waters of Tuonela and his mother's arrival to bring him back to life. Here's the famous original image

and Kunnas's version. The gormless Swan can just about be seen top left, while the bee is flying in to sting the corpse back into action.

We'll have a couple more of these comparisons at the end, but first I want myself to sing the praises of Sakari Oramo's amazing Proms performance with his own empurpled BBC Symphony Orchestra and nearly 140 male voices from the stunning Polytech Choir of Helsinki singing alongside the BBC Symphony Chorus. I call it 'transformative' because previously I'd had total faith in the second, third and fifth movements of Sibelius's early mythological canvas, but perhaps not the opening call to arms nor the battle. Now I think it's a masterpiece from start to finish. Never have the foreshadowings of  Janáček- whose first great opera Jenůfa was still some years in the future when Kullervo was premiered in 1892 - been more striking in the speech-melodies and especially the scene where Kullervo seduces his sister. Oramo made it all sound fresh, original and gripping, doubling the woodwind parts and making sure every word could be heard from his choir, the Wagnerian lyric-dramatic soprano Johanna Rusanen-Kartano and handsome young baritone Waltteri Torikka, pictured here at a different performance.

I'll keep it general, but I have to show a selection of images from last night's performance at the Lahti Sibelius Festival, because that's where I'm heading shortly - a ceremonial duty at the Tower of London this afternoon kept me in London, more on that in a later post - and because the great Chris Christodoulou wasn't there on Saturday. These pictures, all by Juha Tanhua and uploaded onto Lahti's website with Proms-like swiftness, suggest that it was also a great occasion there too (certainly pics I haven't used of a standing ovation confirm that). The BBC Symphony Chorus men didn't travel to Lahti, but then the hall isn't quite as large as Albert's Colosseum. The Polytech men by themselves still made a huge impression, I'm told.

Sakari with his soloists looks as proud and happy as ever.

One more of the main man. Several of my pals from the BBCSO are in there too.

I ought also to include a picture of BBCSO leader on this occasion Natalie Chee. She's good enough to be a world-class soloist, as we heard last year from her part in Strauss's Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and I think she has what it takes to be a co- rather than just a guest leader.

Roll on the orchestra's 2015-16 season with Mahler 3; before that there's a fascinatingly programmed Nielsen/Ives Prom, and tonight in Lahti they're playing more Sibelius under great but elusive Okko Kamu, whom I see in action on Saturday with the resident orchestra.

Coda: a few more Kunnas parodies: a delicious piss-take of fair Aino pursued by old man Väinämöinen. These are the two panels of the Gallen-Kallela triptych in question:

And here's Kunnas's witty reversal of roles in the central image: Aino pursues the old dog rather than vice-versa.

Towards the end of the saga, Väinämöinen and his crew are sailing home with the magical-properties Sampo they forged, gave to the northern folk and stole back when Louhi, crone-queen of the North, attacks them as a giant eagle.

The wolves seem to be in on this one together in The Canine Kalevala.

Still, the Kalevalan heroes all get to live happily ever after, for thanks to the all-providing Sampo, 'all of the heroic dogs' wishes were fulfilled and they were able to bid farewell to 'their wearisome wild and woolly life'. Only the cat Ahti Lemminkäinen, remaining on the outside, manages to aggravate their otherwise calm and overfed lives.


Susan Scheid said...

David: The images alone are worth the price of admission here. I know many of the originals now, but knew nothing of the Canine Kalevala! I do hope I'll have a chance to hear the Proms performance when next near my "proper" sound system and that it comes through. I can only begin to imagine what it would have been like to hear this live. Did you know, by the way, that the Opera Platform has available a performance of a balletic version of Kullervo, with choreography by Finnish choreographer Tero Saarine? I found it quite attractive, though I was only able to watch part of it. I wonder what you might think, though I suspect it would pale in comparison with the glory of what you've just heard.

David said...

You have to get a copy of The Canine Kalevala (and The Seven Dog Brothers, based on a 19th century Finnish classic which I must get in translation. Both these books I bought in English editions). Stephen Johnson alerted me to TCK and I bought it at Helsinki Airport. SDB cost a fortune but I had to have it after I'd seen the children's opera based on it in Savonlinna.

Can't imagine Kullervo danced, except for the third movement (which could also be staged as an opera with video designs). Anyway, I'll have a look.

Met some of the BBCSO players at breakfast here in Lahti this morning. They are head over heels in love with Oramo's work and agree that every concert he's done so far has had that special something. One felt that the Kullervo here was more tense, and of course the BBC Symphony male voice chorus didn't come too, but the journalists were bowled over. For one the other highlight was Anu Komsi, Sakari's wife, with Leif Segerstam in Luonnotar. I think she must be its best interpreter. It was that concert with the BBCSO which convinced them to hire it - and as one player put it, they 'struck gold' there.

David Damant said...

It is some time since I was in the Baltic states ( and Finland if that is not usually included in the phrase) but there was there always a bright freshness, perhaps because with USSR occupation time was slowed down. One can expect, I regretfully suppose, that this characteristic will change as a result of globalisation. At first lots of wonderful things arrive, freeing people from the hopeless prisons of the past. But then the innocence is dissolved and we all become trapped in the skein of commercialisation, fast food, dumbing down and banal political correctness. Except that each person can retain the true values of personality and art and music, as you do David

David said...

I really don't think that will happen in Estonia, David. It has much too strong a sense of itself, and of its musical traditions especially, in which everyone participates via the choral festivals. It's true that Parnu, so old-fashioned for the most part, has a sparkling new mall, but that's on the northern fringe next to the concert hall, and the first thing you see as you go in is a bookshop. To date Estonia is a model EU member state, which has done everything right.

Education, and music education especially, is still so important in Finland (though being slightly eroded through cuts etc). But the worst excesses of western 'progress' were also on show in Lahti, chief being that my hotel - supposedly the best in town - doubled as a nightclub and when I asked after midnight when the thudding would stop, I was told 6am. I moved rooms twice. A colleague said he went down at 3am and the music was still deafening in the bar - but there was no-one there...

Still, it's a shame you had to sully your observations with the jab about 'political correctness'. If you'd added 'the worst excesses of' I might agree, but PC is rooted in democratic progress, not the worst trappings of the west.

David Damant said...

My argument against political correctness is not the substance of each matter which is considered wrong or right. It is that the politically correct views are imposed and cannot be questioned without causing shock ! or anyway constraining a proper discussion.

Pekka Isosomppi said...

43 years I have lived with Gallen-Kallela’s painting of the hero going into battle overlooking me. My parents' house had a replica of it and as a student I spent hours and hours in the room where the original fresco is. And I had somehow always thought it was Lemminkäinen and not Kullervo. And of course I have been reading The Canine Kalevala to my children as well.

In my defence, I did a little bit of Googleing and discovered that I'm not alone: Roughly half of the references of the painting go to Kullervo, other to Lemminkäinen. What really puzzles me is Mauri Kunnas: he is so precise to every detail paying homage to artists before him. Did he really intentionally switch the heroes? Where is the confusion coming from?

Both Sibelius and Galen-Kallela are great artists and national treasures who have shaped our nation and identity in so many ways. Having now lived in London for 2.5 years I have learnt a whole new perspective to them, a universal one.

David said...

I'm sure Kunnas's choice has to do with the fact that he couldn't use the unedifying tale of Kullervo in his book for children of all ages, Pekka. I first saw this image on the cover for the EMI box-set of Berglund's Bournemouth Kullervo, so there was never any confusion in my mind (Berglund's Helsinki version, by the way, is splendid, almost as good as Oramo's).

I was so hoping to see the fresco in Helsinki during the two hours I had there between Lahti and the airport, and my friend Anneli took me to the building, but it was all shut up, ground floor cafe included (impressive how much stays closed on a Sunday in Finland). Next time.

Geo. said...

Good to know how well the BBC SO/Oramo partnership is going from your report. It's always a danger for a conductor and orchestra to "get married after one date", but this seems to be a case where that has worked out very nicely. Hopefully pending BBC budget woes won't dent matters down the line for the orchestra, and the other BBC ensembles (amazing that no one thought to raise the license fee at the last attempt by a mere £1, or £1.50, or even £2.50, rather than keeping it the same and leading to budget shortfalls). The Kalevala is on the mental bucket list of books to read at some point, even if I don't own a actual copy, but after hearing so much of Sibelius' music on record over the years, I should get to the literary source at some point.

David said...

I hope all carries on well, Geo.: I didn't see the orchestras or Radio 3 singled out as potential casualties, but one never knows. They're unlikely to try and pull the plugs on, say, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra like they did some time ago; Runnicles has done great things with it. Ditto Oramo, about whom I've not heard a bad or muted word from any of the players. Even Belohlavek divided opinions. It's a love-in, and I don't see why that shouldn't continue.

Off tonight to hear the band with Litton in what should be a wonderful Prom: Nielsen Springtime in Funen (which I love) and the Violin Concerto in the first half, Ives Fourth in the second preceded by some of the songs and hymns that went into it.

As for reading the Kalevala, I'd strongly recommend the W F Kirby translation I have in an edition from The Atholone Press, because it's in the metre of the original (think 'Hiawatha'). If you think you don't have the time, The Canine Kalevala is warmly recommended. I've just used it as a memory prompt, at least for the episodes it contains. I love its telegraphic descriptions of key ingredients, like the Sampo, 'a fabled device that churned out salt, flour and coins. Whoever had a Sampo never had to work, or suffer from hunger, or go running around in the dark woods. The Sampo made life easy for its owner'.

Geo. said...

The local university library has both the WF Kirby and the newer Keith Bosley translations of the Kalevala, the latter in the World's Classics series, where fortunately the foreword to that edition is on-line, and makes an excellent read. Not sure when I'll get to borrowing either edition; one of these days, so he says.

Obviously my direct experience of the BBC SO is extremely limited, to just a few scattered Proms over the years. My long-distance sense of Belohlavek is that he was an oasis of stability for the orchestra after the mess of Slatkin years (and I live in the city where Slatkin is considered a god, from his past tenure with the SLSO, even though I don't feel any particular obligation to defend Slatkin), even if JB wasn't the most scintillating interpreter out there.

I did hear the Litton/BBC SO Prom over iPlayer; quite the mixed program there. The Ives 4 must have made some noise in the RAH, although to be honest, from hearing past recording of various works of Ives, the tic of mashing together different old-time band tunes in different meters seems to have been a bit old. But Springime in Funen definitely sounds a treat. I had the sense that the chorus adopted modest American accents when they sang the hymns prior to "the truth about Charlie".

David said...

Realise, just seeing this brought to the forefront in 2018, that I never replied to you, Geo. Glad to say that under Oramo the BBCSO gets ever better. And by now you may have heard this performance, since it got released on one of the best (ever) BBC Music Mag cover CDs. This season's Sibelius symphonies cycle was the best I've ever heard - much more so than Rattle's with the Berlin Phil or Salonen's with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.