Jim Westhead
MusicWeb International
August 2019

Sibelius locked away the score of Kullervo after its initial run of performances in 1892, and it was never heard again, in its entirety, for the rest of his life. Consequently, it was more-or-less unknown outside Finland, and had to wait a long time before it made it to the recording studio.

Paavo Berglund made the first studio recording of it in 1971 with the BSO, and another in 1985 with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. This latter version is now available as part of a super-bargain Warner Classics Boxed Set of the Symphonies and some orchestral and choral works. It is my favourite version, so I have been interested to hear how this latest recording from Hyperion fares in comparison.

Berglund’s baritone is Jorma Hynninen and for Dausgaard we have the highly regarded Benjamin Appl, who is significantly lighter voiced than Hynninen and is slightly more forwardly balanced. I cannot be certain of the next point, because my knowledge of Finnish is non-existent, but it seems to me that, at times, he puts an exaggerated emphasis on some words and syllables. This may be due to the fact that, unlike Hynninen, he is not a native speaker of the Finnish language. Hynninen was in his vocal prime, aged 44 when his recording was made, whereas Appl is just 36. This might be thought to give the German an advantage in that Kullervo is a young man, presumably in his 20s, however there is no doubt that Hynninen’s deeply bronzed tones have tremendous impact, whereas I feel that Appl comes very near to shouting when contending with the full orchestra.

Berglund’s soprano is Eeva-Liisa Saarinen, who was 33 when the recording was made. She is less forwardly placed in the recorded acoustic than Dausgaard’s 42-year-old Helena Juntunen, and the latter’s forward presence makes me aware of a rather hard edge to her tone, at times verging on shrillness. Given that her character has some distinctly vehement, emotively abusive lines to deliver, this might be considered appropriate, and no one can deny her vocal acting skills. Both sopranos sing their long monologue, delivered after the discovery that their character (Kullervo’s sister) has just committed incest, with immense feeling. I could quite happily live with either, but on balance I prefer Eeva-Liisa Saarinen’s creamier voice.

Singing in unison, the male voice choir is a vital component of any performance of Kullervo, and Berglund has the immense advantage of no less than three male-voice choirs singing for him. Superb though the Lund Male Chorus are for Dausgaard, they cannot quite match the sheer vocal heft that greater numbers provide for Berglund. For reference, they are The Helsinki University Male Voice Choir, The Academic Choral Society and The State Academic Male Choir of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, and together their immense dark sound contributes greatly to Berglund’s recording.

Both recordings are fine, the Hyperion having more depth and spaciousness to it with the brass having a most appropriate rasp, whereas the strings of Berglund’s Helsinki band have a rather steely edge in comparison. Doubtless the improvement in recording technology over the last 33 years has helped add a pleasing bloom to the BBC Scottish Symphony. Both orchestras play with virtuosity.

There doesn’t seem to me to be much to choose between the actual performances in toto. Both conductors impart considerable propulsive drive when called for, and are also able to slow down, whilst still maintaining intensity during, say, Kullervo’s sister’s anguished monologue. I see that the long ‘Kullervo and his Sister’ movement is taken at an appreciably faster pace by Dausgaard—23’ against Berglund’s 25’. This is particularly apparent during its orchestral opening which depicts Kullervo’s wild ride across open country, where the Scots are inspired to play at considerable speed with commendable unanimity.

All in all, this is a most desirable new recording, and will satisfy most listeners who wish to become acquainted with Sibelius’ early mastery of the large forces required. The booklet contains sung texts and is appropriately informative regarding the genesis of Kullervo. It is written in English, French and German.