On 28 April 1892, when he was only 26, Jean Sibelius unveiled Kullervo to the public. Its triumph established both his career as a composer and his reputation as Finland’s musical bard. Yet Kullervo had to wait until this evening for its first performance by the 115-year-old Seattle Symphony. On hand to do the honours, and fresh from conducting the work with the BBC Scottish Symphony, was Thomas Dausgaard, who will take the reins as Seattle Symphony's new Music Director in the fall of 2019.

Thomas Dausgaard
© Brandon Patoc

The programme happily recalled some of the most magical moments of Dausgaard’s memorable cycle of the complete Sibelius symphonies here three years ago. At the same time, Kullervo’s relative obscurity makes it a tougher work to sell, even if today’s preoccupation with heroes from myth and epic might be expected to do duty for the fervor of the Young Finland movement (whose longing for independence from Russian domination underpinned its original reception).

Sibelius reinforces the strangeness of this material and the singularly unappealing nature of his protragonist. Drawing on a section of the Kalevala, the five-movement Kullervo obliquely conveys its grim narrative with a mixture of purely instrumental music and settings of excerpted passages for male chorus and two soloists. A lengthy portion of the piece transpires through the orchestra alone, depicting the willful, wild, boorish Kullervo, before Sibelius brings in the voices to dramatise one of his exploits.

Like Alberich with the Rhinedaughters, Kullervo persists despite repeated rejection in trying to persuade a young woman to have sex with him. After sleeping with him, the woman discovers she is his lost sister and commits suicide. Kullervo’s own suicide follows in the final movement, when, passing by the setting where their incest occurred, he impales himself on his sword in a gesture of atonement.

This tale of a hero with all the cards stacked against him from the outset might have tempted another composer to adopt a world-weary, fin-de-siècle manner. But for his treatment, Sibelius forged a rough-hewn, vigorous sound that his champion Robert Kajanus described as “a great, roiling spring torrent... that burst upon us from the backwoods.” Even for all the inescapable influences of music percolating in his inner ear at the time (he conceived it while studying in Vienna), Kullervo’s echoes of Bruckner, Wagner and even Beethoven’s ninth never block out the impression of an assertive new voice staking its claim.

What stood out above all in Dausgaard’s impassioned account was exactly this sense of exciting, uninhibited self-discovery on the part of the composer. He dug into its savage, biting blasts of brass with force, while the (purely orchestral) fourth movement – which represents Kullervo the warrior, battling the uncle who slaughtered his family and enslaved him from birth – crackled with electrifying intensity. Elsewhere, in particularly elaborate woodwind scoring – which elicited some of the evening’s best playing – Sibelius’ primal landscape bloomed with stunning colours against the lowering shadows that dominate much of the score.

In Dausgaard’s hands, Sibelius emerged as the real epic poet. His obsessively repeated musical gestures had the effect of Homeric epithets or of a kind of wordless alliteration, enhancing the archaic and even ritualistic qualities of this music. When the chorus entered – members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Cappella Romana – the chanting seemed merely an extension of the orchestra. They delivered a crescendo of overpowering impact in the final scene, voicing Kullervo’s dark thoughts as he weighs his decision to commit suicide. 

Thomas Dausgaard
© Brandon Patoc

Soprano Maria Männistö and baritone Benjamin Appl were the soloists in the third movement – the encounter between Kullervo and his sister, which unfolds rather like an opera scene plunked down amid this hybrid symphony/tone poem. Despite some exquisitely affecting passages, especially for the soprano, the singers had to contend with Sibelius’ occasionally awkward orchestral scoring as it too flooded over their voices. Following the recognition scene, if it may be called that, Appl projected a dark ferocity as Kullervo turns his violent emotions against himself. In this movement and the finale, Dausgaard enforced the long pauses Sibelius calls for to maximal effect – like bleeding gashes marking a point of no return.

One miscalculation: in an effort to set the stage, Dausgaard invited specialists in Finnish folk music to illustrate the researches of composer and musician Timo Alakotila into some of the Finnish sources that Sibelius sought out – without actually quoting them – and that were mixed with his Romantic European influences to create the language for Kullervo. The similarities of line and rhythm pointed out were indeed fascinating, but with no context for the folk material, this prelude became somewhat baffling as it toggled between this material and excerpts from Kullervo, after which the main event suddenly began. On its own, thanks to Dausgaard’’s mastery, it proved satisfying to the full.