The odd early symphony of Sibelius was composed when he was only 26 and he withdrew it from public performance just a year after its premiere. The composer was extremely self-critical and the work wasn’t heard again until after his death. It is part symphony, part tone poem and part cantata. The closing scene sounds like something out of an opera. One might be reminded of Berlioz.
The five movements of the work are: Introduction, Kullervo’s Youth, Kullervo and his sister, Kullervo goes to battle, & Kullervo’s death. Only the third and five have the vocal/choral dramatic cameos, the others being strictly instrumental. The story is a tragic Finnish folk tale and the vocal parts are all sung in Finnish. It is simple enough: the hero Kullervo in his sleigh passes a girl who appeals to him and he lures her unto his sleigh with furs and gold. Later he ravishes her but then discovers he has “spoilt her his mother bore,” and kills himself by falling on his sword. The libretto is included in the note booklet, but you don’t need to be following the Finnish to fully comprehend Kullervo’s woes when he sings about his revelation; the word in Finnish is voi and he clearly communicates his voi.
The three orchestral-only sections are stirring tone poems, with the introduction evoking the beauties of the Finnish countryside, and the battle section being almost a Finnish equivalent of Holst’s Mars in its march-time blaze of orchestral colors. The two soloists stand out in bold relief in front of the chorus and the live recording imparts a feeling of excitement to the proceedings, making even the rough patches in Sibelius’ score less bumpy.
– John Sunier