Missing from Paavo Järvi's recent French Sibelius cycle was Kullervo—the composer's posthumously published 1892 choral Symphony drawing on the 1849 revision of the Karelian Kalevala. The Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, six months younger, repairs the omission with this latest high-impact Hyperion release, a two-day Andrew Keener/Simon Eadon studio collaboration that largely lives up to the partnership.
Dausgaard is not a man to dwell unduly. Repaying listening, his Simax Beethoven cycle was all about adrenalin and visceral charge. Turning the notes on the page into ‘blood’ (his word) matters. He's recorded a quantity of Scandinavian music, old and modern, but little Sibelius (principally just the Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, nearly twenty years ago). On the other hand, with the Seattle Symphony, he undertook a three-week 150th-anniversary Sibelius cycle in 2015 (Luminous Landscapes), and last year, in the days immediately following this recording, showcased Kullervo, juxtaposing it with Finnish folksongs. ‘As a child’, he reflects, his ‘experience of Sibelius' music was like entering into a mysterious, irrational and often slightly creepy world.’ These days, nurtured during his time with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, the way it evolves organically, ‘as the tree sets branches and branches set leaves’, is what ‘excites’ him. ‘A big breathing animal [assuming] the most adventurous forms and expressions.’
The ardent fruit of an about-to-be-married composer in his late twenties, Kullervo—a five-movement hybrid ‘completely in the Finnish spirit’ crossing over between concert-hall and opera house, symphonic landscape and dramatic scena – is large-scale, physical, psychologically complex and interpretatively challenging. It's narrative is anything but cheerful: a tale of Northern wastelands, a fractured personality of ‘middle station’, abandonment, abuse, luckless love, incest, vengeance and massacre climaxing in the double suicide of Kullervo and his sister, she out of shame throwing herself into the icy rapids, he falling on Ukko the sky-god's magic sword.
At seventy-three minutes, Dausgaard's account is in the ballpark of a chain of performances and recordings reaching from Berglund (released in 1971) and Rozhdestvensky (Proms 1979), Colin Davis too, to Salonen, Saraste, Vänskä, Segerstam and Oramo. Salonen used to be slower. Paavo Järvi similarly (seventy-eight), contrasting his father Neeme (ten minutes quicker). (Rouvali's Gothenburg performance two years ago, admittedly including movement gaps, ran out at eight-five.)
Taking the bait, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, big as always on brass and percussion, respond to any detail and every intention. Dausgaard brings plenty to the table. The rhythmic bite and string articulation (nourished despite being no more than 126.96.36.199.6) generates febrile electricity and tautness from the onset, the tutti climaxes attacked powerfully, the voicing of sound-print chords and solos keenly judged.
The crux 'love' tableau, 'Kullervo and His Sister', is urgent and driven, explicitly erotic, cumulatively hard-edged, the forty-nine-strong Lunds Studentsångare ritualising rather than dominating the theatre of the hour—in the balance of this performance less princes of the field than bards of the dark. Of the two soloists, Helena Juntunen is the stronger, deeper coloured dramatist—the maiden raped and wronged. That said, Benjamin Appl is not without his moments. Setting lied and balladeering aside, finding gravel, integrated growingly within the orchestral acoustic, he rises devastatingly to the closing instrumentally massed, precision-cut F-minor pages, preceded at 20:32 by an unprecedented ten seconds of silence following Juntunen's shrieked ‘Would not then I have known these terrors’. Not maybe as throatily or emotionally despairing as someone like Peter Mattei but, certainly, an engaged force in the horror of trauma.
Dausgaard's distinctively personalised timing here isn't the only instance. There's a comparably tensioned twelve-second fermata at 7:18 in the final movement. Consider, too, the pacing of the second-placed 'Kullervo's Youth'—a lullaby tone-poem in the Berglund tradition content to shear five minutes off such as Vänskä.
The scherzando, folkloric fourth movement, 'Kullervo Goes to War', offsets the innocent and the primeval in a swarthy, panoramic C-major sweep, Dausgaard releasing uncanny foreshadowing of Orff, Shostakovich and John Williams. Life slashed and screaming, lightning forking the heavens, the conclusion, 'Kullervo's Death', spirals from ghostly trembling and hushed male unisons to a thundering no-return ace-of-spades finish.
Come the end, gripped by the sensualism, swagger and sorrow of it all, the Loki fire, you feel as though you've been on an epic symphonic voyage, that here, youth regardless, lies truly some of the most imaginative, inventively original, raw music of an era, Strauss and Mahler notwithstanding. With Dausgaard at the helm, a creative, thinking, energised music-maker, might we hope for Hyperion to pursue more of the Sibelius canon? The booklet includes Finnish texts and English translations.