A Finnish symphonic saga

Since the release of this recording of Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo, I have listened to it almost obsessively, at home, in the public transport, at different times of the day, on vacation, on my commute. Each time I listened to it I felt filled with joy and discovered new wonders, but the more I listened to it, the more I postponed the fateful moment when I would have to write a text to share my enthusiasm for this magnificent recording of Kullervo by the Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Lund Male Chorus, soprano Helena Juntunen and baritone Benjamin Appl.

According to the booklet, Kullervo is a symphony for soprano, baritone, male choir and orchestra by Jean Sibelius. It is also often considered to be a symphonic poem because of its narrative nature. Inspired by the Kalevala, a Finnish epic poem written by Elias Lönnrot from folk poems collected in the Finnish countryside between 1834 and 1847, this symphony or symphonic poem illustrates the vengeful saga of the mythical hero Kullervo, a story told in the « runes » or songs 31 to 36 in the Kalevala. It is a particularly bloody and cruel story in which the hero, whose father and people were massacred before his birth, decides to take revenge and slaughters almost everything that comes his way, whether they are men, women, children, or animals, lays waste to entire countries, rapes his sister without knowing who she is, and finally commits a suicide, eaten up with remorse. Composed in the early 1890s, this work had a great success when it was premiered on April 28, 1892, but it was played only four times during Sibelius’ lifetime, as the composer allowed the work to be published only after his death once he had re-orchestrated the « lament » concluding the third movement.

Kullervo is a work that one could somehow consider as « nationalist » or at least folk-inspired. Composed at a time of great tension between the Swedish nationalists, the « Svecomans », and the defenders of Finnish culture and language, the « Fennomans », Kullervo reflects the influence of Finnish folklore on Sibelius. The reading of the Kalevala fascinated Sibelius, and what particularly interested him were the rhythms and thematic variations present in the text, which constituted for him the right materials to create a new form of music. Following his discovery of Finnish popular poetry, Sibelius declared that his style would now include « that melodious, strangely melancholy monotony that is present in all Finnish melodies ».

Originally conceived as a symphony by the Finnish composer, the project evolved into a vocal and choral work, which is sometimes considered to be more a symphonic poem than a symphony, because of the narrative content of this work, Sibelius’s symphonies being generally considered more abstract works. During the composition of the first movement, Sibelius went on a journey to the city of Porvo, where he discovered the art of Larin Paraske, a great Finnish poet who could recite up to 32,000 verses. Yrjö Hirn, who accompanied the composer on that occasion, testified that these sung verses seemed to have made a strong impression on Sibelius, who looked deeply absorbed in Paraske’s performance and even wrote down melodies and rhythms. Sibelius himself told his grandson much later that he was then unaware of Paraske’s celebrity, but that he paid close attention to the way a Finnish « runes » singer used the Finnish language, pronounced it, and that he had tried to follow this model in writing Kullervo.

Although he has not much recorded Sibelius so far, Thomas Dausgaard is one of the best specialists of Finnish music, as he showed during the remarkable concert he gave at this year’s BBC Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, a concert in which he had invited folk singers and musicians so as to show the link between Finnish melodies and Sibelius’s work. In this recording, Dausgaard’s conducting possesses the dynamism necessary to make us hear the epic nature of Kullervo, but also he turns out to be a remarkable architect of the sound in the way each musical sentence is sculpted, each passage is interpreted in a clear and structured way. In this recording, probably a new reference in the discography of the work after those of Berglund, Vänskä, or Paavo Järvi, the orchestra sounds particularly sparkling and colourful, thanks to the magnificent work of the strings, which seem to jump from note to note, with very sharp attacks, but also thanks to the wind section with its slightly acid sound, which seem to pierce the air like sharp arrows, and the rich and generous sound of the brass section. The Danish conductor maintains a constant tension, and knows how to drive the listener through the different episodes of the tragic story of Kullervo. The soloists are both remarkable. Benjamin Appl is still young to sing the dark and tortured character of Kullervo, but he gives a very convincing interpretation, with a clear diction and a great musical sensibility. As for Helena Juntunen, she interprets Kullervo’s sister with a lot of expressive power. The Lunds Studentsangare chorus is beautiful and deeply, especially in the final movement evoking the death of the hero. A great recording of a sublime work to discover or rediscover!

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