Suomi

The young Sibelius

There’s no way around it, music always sounds better when native singers are singing the music of their homeland. A Russian choir glows in the Rachmaninov Vespers, Italians make Monteverdi madrigals erotic and French choirs…well, never mind nobody is allowed to sing in French except the French so I won’t go on.

“Kullervo, Kalervon poika, sinisukka äïjön lapsi, hivus keltainen korea…”
An American choir can’t sing that idiomatically. No way. Thankfully when Osmo Vänskä led the Minnesota Orchestra in a performance of Sibelius’ Kullervo at Carnegie Hall in early March he had the YL Male Voice Choir on hand.

YL Male Voice Choir

YL sang this music as if it was wired into their DNA. Not surprising, founded in 1883, they are the oldest Finnish-language choir. I won’t go into the details of the performance which proved once again that this work by the 27 year old composer is a masterpiece and deserves to stand beside his more famous music. As we’ve learned from his BIS recordings with the Lahti Symphony, Vänskä is the man when it comes to Sibelius. From what I heard at the concert I’m also sure that YL are the men for Sibelius. They sang with a full-bodied muscular sound that was perfectly blended and shaped. For once the exotic, mythic quality of the choral passages really kicked in. Their outstanding (and soon to be retiring) conductor Matti Hyökki is to be praised.

As an encore the orchestra and choir gave us Finlandia – it’s so rare that we get to hear this chestnut with full choir and it was a marvelous performance.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Finland, The Kalevala (their national epic), the Finnish Olympic ice hockey team (the concert took place right after the Olympics) and this superb choir. Some of my inspiration has been fueled by a book I’m reading: Sibelius, A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland by the former editor of the Sibelius Critical Edition, Glenda Dawn Goss.

Essential reading

The upshot of all this is The Kalevala is terrific reading, the hockey team was crushed by the U.S. team because the Finnish goaltender melted down, and the Goss book is one of the most fascinating composer biographies (it’s so much more than just a composer bio), I’ve ever read. Do the work on your own: read the Kalevala and the Goss book. I can’t say anything for the hockey team except they played their tails off to come from behind to beat the Slovakians and win the Bronze medal.

The great Teemu Selanne and his mates sporting their Bronze medals

Back to the choir… I met some of the singers at the concert after-party and learned a bit more about the choir. They have a pretty extensive discography and it’s not just comprised of Sibelius. I didn’t make the connection until after the fact but I have some of their recordings and have been enjoying them for the past year or two—this is the curse of having a CD collection that is too large to manage.

Their recording of Kullervo with the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Leif Segerstam (no slouch in Sibelius either) on the Ondine label is excellent. Perhaps not as perfectly conceived and executed as the Vänskä Minnesota Carnegie performance, but plenty full-blooded, colorful and superbly conducted by Segerstam.

The Kullervo you need to have

Another outstanding recording is their Ondine CD of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s complete music for male choir. This is fascinating music, at times quite challenging and at times piercingly beautiful. Their performances are remarkable for their precision, power and beauty.

Ravishing choral music from the most famous living Finnish composer

They are joined by the Talla Vocal Ensemble on Talescapes (their newest), a recording of contemporary works on the Ondine label. Talescapes features music by five Finnish composers: Perttu Haapanen, Tapio Tuomela, Erik Bergman, Mikko Heiniö and Riikka Talvitie. In addition to the Finnish composers there is also music by the English composer Tarik O’Regan.

I must admit that O’Regan was the only composer with whom I was familiar but I’m certainly interested in hearing more from the Finnish composers. This is such daring music, so out on the edge that it will make you re-consider any notions you might have about choral music. It’s an essential recording if you care about the choral art.

Cutting-edge choral music

You can sample some of the Talescapes music at Ondine.

The mature Sibelius

It’s not the YL Male Voice Choir singing, but this is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written by Sibelius.

Be sure to visit the YL Male Voice Choir at their

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