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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kullervo, Op.7 (1892) [73.14]
Helena Juntunen (soprano), Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Lund Male Chorus
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2018, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow
HYPERION CDA68248 [73.14]

It is a real conundrum why a composer as self-critical as Sibelius, who subjected so many of his major scores to radical revision following their first performances, and even destroyed his Eighth Symphony as failing to live up to his exacting standards, should have been so remarkably cavalier in his attitude towards performers and their interpretations of his music. Not only are his written tempo directions frequently vague to the point of meaninglessness, but he then often fails to provide metronome marks which would supply some frame of reference. During his lifetime he made a habit of saluting with enthusiasm all performances of his music even when these were diametrically at odds with each other, which did not help either to establish a performing tradition, and which remains to this day reflected in recordings which show a remarkable degree of variance in the speeds adopted by conductors and players. That is even more the case with a score like Kullervo, where Sibelius effectively banned performances following its successful initial run, and which was only revived after his death. Its establishment as a recognised part of his output largely stems from its first recording by Paavo Berglund in 1973, which followed a first British performance in Bournemouth the preceding year. (It is interesting to speculate whether J R R Tolkien, who had long had a passion for the Kalevala and an admiration for the music of Sibelius, and who was living in Bournemouth at the time, ever heard the work – he had partially completed his own English version of Kullervo during the years 1912-16 and the legend itself provided inspiration for his own mythology including specific echoes to be found in The Children of Húrin.)

Berglund’s Bournemouth performance and recording provided a template for later recordings, but it was very much in the nature of a first reading of a score that provided from the outset plenty of scope for different emphases and interpretations; the same conductor’s later Helsinki recording had some startlingly changed balances, and the flood of later recordings that followed (some twenty are currently listed on Archiv) generally divided into two schools of interpretation – the fast and the slow, with the duration of the work as a whole differing by as much as ten minutes. This very much mirrors the general trend in Sibelius interpretation, a phenomenon upon which I commented when discussing Leif Segerstam’s Naxos series of the incidental music . There the conductor often added substantially to the length of the scores as performed (mainly by Osmo Vänskä) on the BIS Sibelius Edition – and often, to my mind, with great persuasiveness. Oddly enough in the case of their recordings of Kullervo Vänskä is actually slower than Segerstam.

I do not claim to have heard all the recordings of Kullervo in the catalogue (although I have heard a goodly number of broadcast performances which have never appeared on CD) but I would hazard the general observation that the best readings are those which do not allow the slow second movement describing Kullervo’s youth to become too becalmed (Sibelius would gain experience in his handling of slow material as he matured), but at the same time allows the atmospheric final movement describing the hero’s suicide in the slow-covered forest to make its solemn dramatic impression without becoming too concerned about forward symphonic momentum. This new recording scores highly in both these regards, as well as drawing the listener’s attention to many points of detail that can easily become submerged in less closely observed interpretations.

The originality and dramatic engagement of the performance are enhanced by recorded sound that is at once immediate and realistically balanced. I have admired the singing of the Lund chorus in the past (notably a superb Naxos recital of rare and valuable works for male choir issued in 2012) and they rise magnificently to the challenge of Sibelius’s bold orchestral writing in the third and fifth movements. Helena Juntunen as Kullervo’s unfortunate sister, who has the lion’s share of the singing in the dramatic third movement, is marvellously engaged with the text, as indeed is Benjamin Appl in his seduction of the unwitting maiden; but his lament on the discovery of his incest is perhaps the one point in this performance where I felt a lack of impact. This is largely the composer’s fault: he writes a stratospherically high baritone line to be declaimed over a series of smashing staccato orchestral chords which it would require a super-charged Wagnerian bass-baritone singing at full throttle to make effective. Appl is emotionally engaged (and his softer singing is marvellous) but he lacks the sheer heft to challenge his ‘accompaniment’ even though the recorded balance here matches what one would expect to encounter in the concert hall and certainly does not lack realism. Some listeners may find the sense of a titanic struggle between the suffering hero and his doom-laden destiny is enhanced by this, but I am not sure that the over-optimistic and inexperienced Sibelius actually intended such an effect.

Despite this minor reservation, this is a splendid new reading of a work that has generally been lucky on record, and a performance that sheds new light onto aspects of a piece that might have been in danger of becoming over-familiar. The presentation is also excellent: full notes in English, French and German, the original Finnish text and the 1907 English translation by William Forsell Kirby. Tolkien was quite rude about the qualities of this translation, but for musical purposes its unfortunate Hiawatha-like jog-trot does match the scansion of the Finnish original – the composer tried, not always successfully, to break up the rhythms in a more imaginative fashion. The cover illustration by John Bauer (1882-1918) is very handsome, too.

Those who love this score – and I fell in love with it on first acquaintance – will welcome a new and imaginative interpretation. Those who don’t yet know it will find themselves wondering at the willingness of Sibelius to suppress during his lifetime any performances of one of his most impressive early scores.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John Quinn

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