Sibelius had mixed feelings about Kullervo, the work that in 1892 marked his first big breakthrough—and so do today’s concert programmers. Even now, when the composer’s seven symphonies are standard repertoire, it’s not often performed. Sibelius described it as a symphony, but it is really more a set of five tone poems on an epic scale; its 75-minute length is one reason it does not get more performances.
That said, listening to Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it’s hard to know what one would cut. The players are in prime storytelling mode, painting in dark but clear colours, conjuring up the landscapes of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Dausgaard has the measure of this music, with its slow, tick-tocking, inextinguishable pulse, its sense of fast movement against vast immobility: a bird skimming low across a Nordic lake. There’s a crackle of excitement every time he shifts up a gear and the orchestral cogs find their groove.
The third movement begins with a high-velocity sleigh ride, all bristling violins with a tinnitus of triangle jingle-belling above. This is the movement in which voices are added, narrating the story of unlucky Kullervo’s true downfall—his unknowing seduction of his own sister. Helena Juntunen sings the sister with poise and bite, and while Benjamin Appl may not be the kind of gravelly baritone you might expect for Kullervo, his lieder-singer’s control serves him well. At the end of the movement, he sounds genuinely, excitingly at the edge of his endurance, cursing his fate. The only drawback is that the Lund Male Chorus could do with more heft, though they are lively storytellers.