Santtu-Matias Rouvali is Finnish, so Sibelius was an obvious choice for his inaugural concert as Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony. But which work to choose? Rather than one of Sibelius’ Greatest Hits, Rouvali chose the work that started it all, the choral/symphonic suite Kullervo – “his symphony number zero”, as Rouvali puts it.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu

Listening to Kullervo is like looking back into a futuroscope. It’s packed with musical fragments that need only a slight twist to morph into themes from the symphonies. Dance sequences prefigure Prokofiev’s ballet music. The eponymous Kullervo is the tortured, conflicted hero of runes 31-36 of the Kalevala, the compendium of Finland’s orally transmitted mythology: the depiction of raw, powerful folk tales set in the grandeur of the landscape anticipate Sibelius’ later, more famous Kalevala-based works. And half a century before the golden age of Hollywood, some of the music is grand and epic on a scale that could have been dropped straight into Ben Hur, Spartacus or their ilk.

Rouvali is, quite simply, the most physical conductor I know: he’s not a tall man, but on the podium, he throws the whole of his lithe figure into the music – in another life, he could have been a choreographer. The movements are exceptionally clear to read, both for the layman and, on the evidence of last night’s concert, for the orchestra: there wasn’t a hair’s breadth between the Gothenburg Symphony’s string players, most noticeable in the rapid, scurrying passages and the dance rhythms. Helped by the lively acoustic of Göteborgs Konserthuset, the big climaxes thrilled.

The kernel of the story comes in the third movement, where the orchestra is joined by a male chorus which narrates the seduction by Kullervo of a woman who turns out to be his sister: soprano and baritone soloists sing the roles of the siblings. The 100 strong Orphei Drängar were nothing short of sensational, the refrain of “Kullervo, Kalervon poika” not only propelling the narrative forward, but becoming more intense at each repetition just when you thought they were already at full throttle.

The more substantial of the solo roles is Kullervo’s unnamed sister, sung superbly by Johanna Rusanen. Her huge voice never faltered, was lusciously smooth, perfectly in tune and poured out emotion in the lament where she wishes she had died as a child, describing how the forest berries might have bloomed at her burial site (in the story, shortly afterwards, she drowns herself in the nearby stream). The fact that the title role was sung by Johanna’s real-life brother Ville Rusanen added poignancy but, I’m sorry to say, little else: Ville has a clear, elegant baritone which lacks the roughness to portray the coarse Kullervo or the raw power being generated by Johanna.

Of the three instrumental movements, the second was the strongest, delicately balanced, with Sibelius’ unexpected key changes always satisfying and string themes shining through clearly above an underlying pulse that was always strongly maintained. There’s even a little scherzo-like passage before the first of the big Hollywood-style landscapes, just before the movement ends in a perfectly poised pianissimo. The fourth was a disappointment: Kullervo is supposed to be going to war, but the war had rather too much 19th-century military and not enough ancient myth, and the music somewhat lost its way.

The ending, however, was superb. Smitten by remorse at the site of his sister’s death, Kullervo asks his magic sword whether it will accept tasting his own, guilty, blood: the sword, which is both sapient and amoral as well as magical, replies that it is indifferent to the guilt or otherwise of the blood it tastes. It’s a powerful moment which has been taken up by fantasy authors as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock, and Sibelius renders it as an extraordinary choral crescendo: Orphei Drängar gave it their all to produce exceptional intensity: the final honours went to the Gothenburg Symphony, with a huge, brass-and-timpani infused conclusion.