in Reviews

Astonishing radicality

by Martin Anderson

"If this recording doesn’t sweep up an indecent quantity of prizes, there’s something wrong with the world."

Time was when Kullervo was a real rarity; these days, it’s far from being terra incognita: there are 22 releases in the current catalogue, and, even as I write, Ondine is bringing out another, with Johanna Rusanen and Ville Rusanen as soloists, the Estonian National Male Choir,  Polytech Choir, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu conducting (watch this space). The only people who can regret the recent familiarity of Kullervo must be ‘YL’, the Helsinki University Male-Voice Choir, who used to be mentioned in the same breath and travelled the world to sing in the piece – and now everyone does it. 

The downside of Kullervo’s arrival as a repertoire work is that a new recording now has to tell us something new about the piece – and this one does, gloriously. It’s obvious from the first few bars, where Dausgaard scrupulously observes minor changes of dynamic, that this is going to be a reading that pays especial attention to the detail of the score, and again and again throughout these 73 minutes he brings out some aspect of the orchestration, the balance, the tempo, the rhythm, that I hadn’t noticed before – and the players of the BBC Scottish reward him with a chamber-musical clarity and a whipcrack responsiveness that is altogether remarkable. 

Another side-effect of the internationalisation of Kullervo is the advent of non-Finnish voices, and although in purely musical terms this German baritone and Swedish choir can barely be faulted, there’s a particular colour to Finnish vowels that is as much part of the music as the colours of the orchestra: one misses YL after all – as also, of course, the flinty tones of Jorma Hynninen, who understood that this is a Greek tragedy, not a Romantic one, so that Kullervo is a symbolic figure; Appl tries to humanise him and loses much of his tragic nobility. 

Dausgaard’s tempi are on the fast side in general, but my ears bulged when I heard the greyhound speed at which he began the third movement, but chorus and orchestra keep easy pace with him, and it gives some of Helena Juntunen’s contributions a sabre-like sharpness and intensity. At other points in her monologue the orchestra appears to listen to her and offers gentle wisps of commentary, which are all the more moving for their understatement. 

The recording team has captured it all in sound that is both transparent (you can occasionally hear the keys of the some of the woodwind instruments) and powerful: play this loud (as you will definitely want to) and its sheer physical impact will have you conducting along – you won’t be able to sit still. Daniel Grimley’s booklet note is a model of what these things should be. 

In short, this is a thrilling, wildly exciting release. We all knew that Kullervo was a work of astonishing radicality, unlike anything else in the music of its day; Dausgaard’s achievement is that he reveals just how radical it really was – and still is. If this recording doesn’t sweep up an indecent quantity of prizes, there’s something wrong with the world.

SIBELIUS: Kullervo
Helena Juntunen (soprano), Benjamin Appl (baritone), Lund Male Chorus, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; cond. Thomas Dausgaard
Hyperion CDA68248