First published in the Guardian on 16 August, 2015
Sibelius was young and intense when he wrote Kullervo, an epic amalgam of symphony and cantata that he infused with such bombastic patriotism he would later look back and cringe. “This UrFinnishness has got into my flesh and blood,” he told his future wife while working on the score and boy, does the music let it show. Kullervo himself is a Finnish folk hero who accidentally seduces his sister then goes on a killing spree that culminates with himself. The piece was a major hit when it premiered in Helsinki in 1892; now, here, the dubious eroticism and blithe violence seem plain cartoonish — but the lusty drama of the music is irresistible in a performance as exciting as this.
Edward Gardner paired operatic scale with matter-of-fact clarity for an unflinching, vigorous, at times arrestingly stark account from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the gents of the RSNO and Festival choruses and soloists Jukka Rasilainen and Anna Larsson. Crucially, Gardner didn’t fall for any romanticised evocations of northernness or machismo, but instead painted a harsh, lonely landscape in which Kullervo is a flawed and brutal character. The orchestral sound was rich and massive: luminous winds, blazing peals from the brass, deep and lustrous strings. The combined choirs weren’t agile but their punchy, robust delivery was a thrill. Both soloists — who were vocally well-matched despite Rasilainen being a stand-in — unleashed lines of gothic passion and thundering doom.
The concert opened with James MacMillan’s Second Percussion Concerto, written for and played with tremendous finesse by Colin Currie. Together he and Gardner unfolded inquisitive, conversational lines through orchestral blasts of shrieking, swaggering bravura, misty elegies and plaintive chorales. This was Currie’s debut at the Edinburgh International Festival; how such a superbly communicative, commanding Scottish artist has stayed away for so long is a mystery.