The Finnish national poem the Kalevala tells of the exploits of mythological heroes in graphic detail. Catching the imagination of the young nation, it has inspired artists, writers and composers and is taught in schools. A youthful Sibelius took the heroic and brutal tale of Kullervo from the saga, creating a work that’s more like five tone poems than a choral symphony. A Swedish speaker, Sibelius chose to set it in Finnish, endearing him to the nation, and the work’s success at its first performance at Helsinki University in 1892 thrust the young composer overnight into the status of a major figure. Choosing Kullervo to close the 2017/18 season, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave us a chance to examine this volcanic composition described as “barbaric and raw” by Robert Fuchs, the composer’s Viennese teacher. Flying into Scotland on a plane with a picture of Sibelius emblazoned on the tailfin, the renowned Swedish Lund Male Choir was ready to add authentic flavour.

Thomas Dausgaard © Thomas Grondahl
Thomas Dausgaard
© Thomas Grondahl

Kullervo is not quite long enough to stand as a single work in concert, its unique, visceral and distinctive nature making it difficult to pair up in performance. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard’s solution was to explore the folk music the young Sibelius might have heard, so he and folk musician Timo Alakotila arranged a short suite of songs for orchestra, folk singers and choir with Alakotila on harmonium and Vilma Timonen on kantele – a small Finnish harp, played horizontally. From the soft throb of a shaman drum, the music blossomed and swelled pastorally, Taito Hoffren and Ilona Korhonen singing the simple Finnish songs, with a jubilant shout of “Kullervo, Kalervo’s son” from the choir as an arresting centrepiece. With a low grumble from the double basses, this enjoyable prelude segued straight into the main work.

Kullervo is written in five movements, two of which are choral. It is a gruesome, dark tale, following Kullervo who grows into a strong but angry youth, ready to avenge the people who decimated his tribe and who sold him into slavery. He meets three women on his travels, and tries to entice each under the furs of his sled. Rejected roundly by two, he forces himself on the third, discovering the following morning that she is his long-lost sister. It is too much for the girl who throws herself into a whirlpool and drowns. Kullervo goes off to war and his remaining family are murdered. He returns to the barren spot where he raped his sister, asks his sword if it should kill him, and the sword answers back in agreement. 

The music is instantly recognisable as Sibelius, the “Introduction” full of sweeping strings, big tunes in the brass and delicate choices from the orchestral palette, with woodwind solos and the triangle kept busy in the percussion. The strings attacked the music with sharp verve, urgently pulling phrases this way and that to try to achieve resolution, Dausgaard almost dancing on the podium. At key points in the work, the tension becomes almost too much, stopping the music dead in dramatic pauses, here the full brass blazing out the main theme to close. “Kullervo’s Youth” starts as a sweet-themed lullaby, a lovely clarinet solo emerging over soft horns, only the rumble of the double basses presaging serious trouble ahead, beguiling folk tunes and light pastoral flutes contrasting with restless orchestral surges.

“Kullervo and his Sister” is the shocking heart of the work: a bright, busy theme of open adventuring music begins, darkening to the high drama of the ritualistic narration mostly sung in unison by the Lund Male Choir, the Finnish open vowels hurtled out with wonderful precision and gusto. Finnish soprano Helena Juntunen was terrifying in her first rebuttals (“I spit on your sledge”), loudly cursing Kullervo, then stoic in her long lament. Benjamin Appl’s high baritone conveyed the desperation and angst of our hero, his voice cutting brightly through the rich and often writhing orchestrations, suddenly and dramatically switching to 5/4 time, matching the stresses in the Finnish language.

“Kullervo Goes to War” is the jaunty scherzo movement, and the sheer energy of the players was almost infectious in building big tunes, the ending a deafening roar of trumpets and drums. The choir returned to narrate “Kullervo’s Death”, this time in dense harmony, beginning softly with a beautiful and haunting cor anglais solo. The music built violently to a series of shattering chords and a huge pause before the full voices loudly told of how Kullervo fixed his sword and threw himself on it.  

This was a thrilling performance of a neglected work: for all its youthful exuberance, it is a road map to symphonic greatness and it went down a storm in Glasgow. A tremendous encore of the Finlandia hymn with the Lund Male Choir set the seal on a powerful and memorable Nordic evening.