SIBELIUS: Kullervo – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Thomas Dausgaard – Hyperion 

by | Jul 24, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SIBELIUS: Kullervo – Symphony for soprano, baritone, male choir and orchestra, Op. 7 – Helena Juntunen, soprano/ Benjamin Appl, baritone/ Lund Male Chorus/ BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Thomas Dausgaard – Hyperion CDA68248, 73:14 (6/28/19)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Sibelius’ 1892 “choral symphony” did not qualify in his own mind for the “symphony” designation, and he called it a “tone poem” which he premiered himself in Helsinki. Sibelius drew upon verses from the Finnish national epic Kalevala, those episodes that deal with the tragic ironies in the life of Kullervo, sold into slavery and destined in his freedom to fall in love with a girl who turns out to be his own sister. For the chordal texture Sibelius followed the path of Karelian runic modes, whose tenor Sibelius maintains without quoting such melodies directly. The work as a whole reveals a kind of symmetry, with four sung movements both separated and linked by instrumental interludes. The interludes feature the clarinet, horn and cello as spokes-vehicles for the theme of migration and change of perspective. The parts of the mezzo-soprano and choir – the latter of which sings without accompaniment in movement five – form a complement to each other. Sibelius, in various studies of the Kalevala in Vienna, spoke of the epic as “pure music, themes and variations.” Having had go learn Finnish after speaking native Swedish, Sibelius absorbed what he termed the UrFinnishness of his blood. Given Sibelius’ susceptibility to Wagner, Bruckner, and the epic nature of his national impulses, he builds a variant of Greek tragedy, haunted with motifs of incest and suicide.

Sibelius claimed that his first movement Introduction – Allegro moderato sought a compelling mood in 6/4 F Major, yet the tenor of the first movement settles into E minor. Triplet figures and string pizzicatos run rampant throughout the sequence. The second movement Kullervo’s Youth – Grave establishes a rondo form that sets us a lullaby with variations. The generally pastoral character of movement two has an immediate contrast in the third movement Kullervo and his Sister – Allegro vivace, F Major, moving in the 5/4 meter typical of runic song. The chorus enters with a dramatic D minor. Kullervo attempts seduction upon a number of maidens – depicted in vivacious dialogues between mezzo and baritone – and he finally ravishes a maiden in his sledge, only to discover the girl to be his long-lost sister. Kullervo’s sister’s narrative of her misspent youth and travails clearly rings with aspects of Wagnerian mythos – and especially in the erotic climax in C-sharp Major – the third movement itself runs longer than the composer’s own Seventh Symphony.  The galloping rhythms and tone colors of the orchestra look back Berlioz and ahead to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. She proceeds to drown herself out of remorse. Kullervo, too, suffers grim regret, lamenting in F minor, and the orchestra follows him with fateful hammer blows that rival Wagner and Mahler for their dramatic import.

The fourth movement moves into a kind of danse macabre: Kullervo goes to War – Alla marcia – Vivace – Presto – set in a militant C Major. Rhythmic energy and buoyant, syncopated colors mark the progress of this purely symphonic movement. The clashing armies of Kullervo and his enemy, Untamo’s clan, project the glistening energies of sword and steel. For his finale, Kullervo’s death – Andante, Sibelius takes a cyclic turn, reintroducing his theme from movement one, and Kullervo returns to the scene of his brutal, incestuous assault. Kullervo finds something of a “noble” death in falling upon his own sword.

Conductor Daugaard and his fine soloists realize a moody, meandering, and austere epic that displays a youthful composer’s seeking his own roots by his own musical means. Built into the more national impulses, the Wagnerian motif – a la Tristan and Goetterdaemmerung – of longing and desire have insinuated themselves to create a Sibelius version of the Berlioz “dramatic symphony.” As a cornerstone of the Sibelius syntax and orchestral vocabulary, the work should prove seminal for admirers of the Finnish genius. The orchestral sonics – courtesy of Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon – work compelling magic throughout.

—Gary Lemco