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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kullervo, Symphony for soprano and baritone soloists, male choir and orchestra, Op 7 (1892)
Helena Juntunen (soprano); Benjamin Appl (baritone);
Lunds Studentsångare;
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2018, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow
Finnish text and English translation included
HYPERION CDA68248 [73:14]

Memory can be deceptive. I thought it was quite recently that I reviewed a recording of Kullervo by Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra. However, on checking, I discovered that I appraised the recording over two years ago. My memory did not let me down in one important respect though: I admired the Vänskä performance very much. Now Hyperion has issued a new recording made by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor, Thomas Dausgaard. The Vänskä performance was recorded live in concert whereas to the best of my knowledge Hyperion made their version under studio conditions.

Daniel M Grimley’s very useful booklet essay is strong on the background to the composition of Kullervo. It came about, as he says, at the time when the Finns were struggling to achieve independence from Russia – though that only came about in 1917. Sibelius, a Swedish-speaking Finn, began to learn the Finnish language at school but only really engaged with study of the language subsequently, perhaps spurred on by his fiancée, Aino Järnefelt, who Grimley describes as “ardently fennomane”. Ironically, it was while he was away from Finland, studying, that Sibelius got to grips with the Finnish epic the Kalevala. I think I’m right in saying that he had known it since childhood but he really came under its spell when he was studying in Berlin and Vienna (1889-91). Work on Kullervo began during this period.

Sibelius was drawn to the tragic tale of Kullervo who was forcibly separated from his family as a child. Reunited with them later, he goes off to pay the family taxes and, on the journey back home in his sleigh, he encounters three young women and tries to entice each one in turn into his sleigh. The third one takes up the invitation and he seduces her. Afterwards, as they talk, Kullervo is appalled to realise that the woman is his long-lost sister. That scene is depicted in the third and longest of the symphony’s five movements. After going off to war (movement four) Kullervo, overcome with guilt at his actions towards his sister, kills himself; his suicide is narrated in the finale.

The text that is sung in the third and fifth movements is in Finnish and it’s quite common for non-Finnish orchestras who essay the work to invite a Finnish male-voice choir to do the honours for them. Here, though, we find a Swedish choir on duty. The Lunds Studentsångare is from the university town of Lund in Scania, southern  Sweden. I note also that another non-Finnish choir, the London Symphony Chorus, did a sterling job for Sir Colin Davis (review) and there may well be other instances of recordings with non-Finnish choirs of which I’m unaware. I must say, though, that I was surprised to find that on this recording Thomas Dausgaard has a soloist, Benjamin Appl, who is not Finnish; I’m struggling to recall another such instance on disc.

Dausgaard’s performance starts strongly. Comparing his account of the music with Vänskä’s I was struck by the extent to which Dausgaard observes dynamic hairpins; he’s much more pronounced in this respect than Vänskä. Indeed, throughout the movement, Dausgaard uses dynamic contrasts to excellent effect. Both conductors are excellent but I definitely enjoyed Dausgaard‘s sharply detailed performance; he offers a compelling Introduction to the story that is to unfold and the playing of the BBCSSO is very committed.

The next movement is entitled ‘Kullervo’s youth’ and the two performances under consideration are sharply contrasted. Listening first to Dausgaard I found his way with the music very convincing. It was something of a shock to turn then to Vänskä – I’d not had occasion to return to the recording since first reviewing it. His treatment of the music is significantly slower than Dausgaard’s. For once, the clock does not deceive: Vänskä takes 19:05 over this movement whereas Dausgaard gets through it in 14:25, a time which is much more in keeping with other versions I’ve heard, such as those by Davis and Paavo Berglund. Looking back, I see I was positive about Vänskä’s account of the movement but now, heard in direct competition with Dausgaard, I’m not so sure. To be sure, Vänskä is deeply serious, but even if, like me, you don’t quite agree with Daniel Grimley’s description of the movement as a “lullaby”, I think he probably overdoes the seriousness. Dausgaard is more dynamic in his presentation of the music and I think that his somewhat lighter touch - whilst not eschewing seriousness – is preferable to Vänskä.

The long central movement – here playing for some twenty-three minutes – is the crux of the work. The male-voice choir acts as narrator while the two soloists take the roles of Kullervo and his (unnamed) sister. The writing for the choir is mainly in unison at the octave and one doesn’t miss harmony at all. Before we hear the singers, though, the orchestra depicts Kullervo’s ride in his horse-drawn sleigh. Both conductors are very exciting here, making Kullervo and his steed fly like the wind. Dausgaard’s choir, the Lunds Studentsångare, makes a fine showing, projecting the narrative strongly, as does Vänskä’s Finnish choir. Both versions benefit from excellent female soloists. Helena Juntunen is very dramatic – the role is quasi-operatic – and towards the end of the movement she credibly portrays the wronged woman. Lilli Paasikivi, a mezzo, who sings for Vänskä, is no less credible. I find Benjamin Appl a more controversial choice, though. He sings with the intelligence you’d expect and he characterises his music well. However, he lacks the heft and darkness of tone that Vänskä’s soloist, Tommi Hakalam offers. That’s especially true of the last passage in the movement when Kullervo realises what he has done and issues a great, anguished cri de cœur. Overall, Appl suggests to me a young man but Hakalam sounds like a more mature warrior prince.

After Dausgaard’s spirited rendition of the fourth movement, ‘Kullervo goes to war’, in which Vänskä is equally dashing and forthright, we come to ‘Kullervo’s death’. This movement is very well done in both performances. However, Dausgaard is more hushed and mysterious at the start and, even more than Vänskä, he builds the tension over the first three or four minutes. His choir tells the tragic story in compelling fashion. At 7:30, after a silence of no less than 12 seconds, the Dausgaard performance depicts the hero’s suicide with searing intensity from both choir and orchestra. The BBCSSO projects the dark instrumental elegy for Kullervo (from 8:44) very powerfully indeed and the very end of the symphony, with one last iteration of Kullervo’s motto theme, is tragically heroic. I should hasten to add that Vänskä’s account of the finale is equally gripping.

Hyperion have given us a very fine version of Kullervo. Engineer Simon Eadon and producer Andrew Keener have presented the performance in excellent sound and, even though I have a slight reservation about the suitability of Benjamin Appl’s voice, the singing and playing on display here is very fine indeed. Vänskä, a noted Sibelian, matches Dausgaard at almost every turn – it really is nip and tuck between them for most of the time. However, I prefer Dausgaard’s way with the second movement. You won’t go far wrong with this performance of Sibelius’s early symphony.

John Quinn

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