When I was playing in a youth orchestra, some time ago in the 20th century, one of my pals revealed that he had discovered an immensely long, frightening symphony by Sibelius which was more or less unknown, and that he would lend me the LP. (I have to remind myself that, supposing this conversation took place in the late 1960s, Sibelius had only just died a decade earlier. And Finland itself was a mysterious place, a puzzling entry zone to Soviet Russia where no-one I knew of had ever been.) The piece was Kullervo – I don’t think the boomy LP had sleeve notes or a translation, and I must have given up anyway before movement 3 which is where the chorus enter.
Fast forward to the BBC Proms this weekend, and the prospect of Kullervo seemed like business as usual, not exactly commonplace, but a regular part of the Sibelius canon (although the composer himself didn’t think so, prohibiting all but the 3rd movement from performance after its premiere run.) It wouldn’t do though to take an enterprise like this for granted. Around 85 young Finnish men (plus two wonderful soloists) had travelled from Helsinki to join another 65 tenors and basses of the BBC Symphony Chorus. We heard that on the previous night they had all met together to bond at a party where vodka was drunk – an exploit that seems straight out of the Kalevala. ‘Classical music’ should be applauded for its basic assumption of multilingual internationalism. If you heard that the Barbican was staging an evening- long Finnish play in Finnish with a 100-strong imported cast, wouldn’t you think it remarkable? But the Proms audience followed the musical equivalent of this phenomenon, accompanied of course by helpful translations in the programme book, with practised aplomb.
This time round I was completely gripped by the astonishing, weird minimalism of Sibelius’ choral writing. The huge array of male singers sing most of the time in complete unison, and always in rhythmic unison. Just now and then at important moments (eg when Kullervo ravishes the comely maiden who, spoiler alert, turns out to be his sister) the group divide into very primary harmony, still tightly bound together by broad rhythmic values. It is an incredible sound – which as I listened that evening rendered the world of ‘normal’ SATB choral music fussy and indeed fusty with its endless, decorative counterpoint leading nowhere in particular. (I do wish I hadn’t had this epiphany a couple of days before leading a choral composition workshop with the BBC Singers). The only composer I could think of who sometimes approaches this sound is John Tavener. I felt duly re-inspired to try writing more elementally for choral ensembles. I should end by saying that the performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their new-ish principal conductor Sakari Oramo was superb, and indeed I believe this summer’s concerts conducted by him are the best I can remember them playing under anyone. (Moreover,see the beginning of this post, I can go back as far as Sir Malcolm Sargent, should I wish.)