Dausgaard Mines Finnish Folk Vein In Epic ‘Kullervo’

Thomas Dausgaard, the Seattle Symphony’s music director designate, conducted Jean Sibelius’ ‘Kullervo,’ with baritone Benjamin Appl, soprano Maria Männisto, and a men’s chorus drawn from local forces. (Photo: James Holt, Seattle Symphony)
By Jason Victor Serinus

It only took 126 years for Kullervo (1891-1892), which Sibelius described as a “symphonic poem in five movements,” to receive its Seattle Symphony premiere. For the belated May 31 Benaroya Hall airing of this 73-minute epic that includes movements for male chorus and two soloists, the Pacific Northwest owes thanks to music director-designate Thomas Dausgaard. Slated to succeed Frenchman Ludovic Morlot as music director in 2019, Dausgaard is following Morlot’s model of programming Scandinavian music heretofore underrepresented in Seattle.

Thomas Dausgaard becomes Seattle Symphony music director in 2019. (Brandon Patoc)

Aware that the intentionally drone-like, repetitive choruses and orchestral sequences at the epic’s core can be challenging for audiences who do not have traditional Finnish melodies and harmonic intervals in their blood, Dausgaard prefaced the oratorio with a presentation by artists who specialize in traditional Finnish and Swedish music. “All of the themes in Kullervo reflect folk music,” Dausgaard said as runo singer Ilkka Kallio demonstrated how Sibelius adapted Finnish folk melodies to a symphonic context. Dausgaard also invited famed artist Vilma Timonen to demonstrate the kantele, a small, flat, harp-like instrument of ancient pedigree that was considered to possess magical properties; its sound is imitated in Kullervo by the harmonium (played by Timo Alakotila).

During a period when Finland struggled against Russian domination, Sibelius sought to bolster Finnish national identity via a retelling of one of the defining legends of Finnish culture, the story of Kullervo, drawn from Finland’s legendary saga the Kalevala. After an extended orchestral introduction, designed to set the stage for the story’s unfolding, the orchestra paints a picture of youth of Kullervo, son of King Kaleva. Raised by an uncle who sold him into slavery, Kullervo eventually returns home to learn that his sister has vanished in the forest and is feared dead.

Baritone Benjamin Appl seemed a lightweight hero.

At the beginning of the work’s third section, which in this performance utilized the voices of the men of Cappella Romana and the Seattle Symphony Chorale, soprano Maria Männisto, and baritone Benjamin Appl, Kullervo sets out on his journey and attempts to seduce three women. After striking out with the first two, he snares the third by adding gold and jewels – which he has amassed as tax collector – to his offer of carnal pleasures. Afterwards, as they tell each other their stories, the two discover that they are long-separated brother and sister. Distraught, the young woman intentionally jumps into the rapids of a raging river and drowns.

In the fourth section, Sibelius reverts to orchestra alone to depict how Kullervo, armed with a magic sword, goes into battle in hopes of taking vengeance on his uncle. In the final episode, in which voices return, Kullervo goes home victorious, only to discover that his entire family has died. Overcome with grief and guilt – Dausgaard noted in his introduction that this aspect of the legend reflects the influence of Christian guilt and sin on Finnish lore – Kullervo wanders about until he comes upon the spot where he seduced his sister. Grabbing his magic sword, he asks it if it is ready to slay him. When the sword responds that there is no reason why an instrument that has slain so many innocent people should not also kill someone so evil, the “hapless hero” Kullervo falls on his sword and perishes.

Jean Sibelius in 1891, about the time of ‘Kullervo.’

Musically, Kullervo is something of a mixed bag. For all its literal storytelling, its battle music sometimes sounds as gay and carefree as a Scottish reel, and seems strangely incongruous in a tale so tragic. Nor can its first two sections be characterized as anything more than loosely descriptive. As tone poems go, Kullervo’s purely orchestral movements pale alongside the roughly contemporaneous efforts of the young Richard Strauss. Likewise, those looking for something of the swirling passion that Wagner embedded in Tristan und Isolde will be sorely disappointed.

Perhaps Kullervo’s music held greater meaning for audiences of Sibelius’ time that were caught up in the sweep of the traditional melodies embedded in the work. Be that as it may, Dausgaard sought to bring out the music’s inherent poetry. By skillfully changing dynamics, at one point starting as softly as possible, and saving fortes for climactic moments, Dausgaard showed utmost respect for the artistic impulse that motivates the work.

It is to the two sections for voice and orchestra that Sibelius devotes his most powerful writing. Many conductors, including Osmo Vänskä in his most recent recording, favor big operatic voices for the solo roles. Think Jorma Hynninen, Tommi Hakala, and Peter Mattei for Kullervo, and the likes of Soile Isokoski, Monica Groop, Lilli Paasikivi, and Karita Mattila for the sister. Dausgaard, however, perhaps taking his cue from Kallio’s relatively light voice, chose for Kullervo a lighter voiced German baritone known primarily for lieder, and a Swedish lyric soprano whose instrument seems far more suited to oratorio than to grand opera.

The results were somewhat tepid. Appl may share with his mentor, the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a seductively warm middle register, but his top sounded pushed and pinched rather than free. Nor did he seem able to summon forth, on this occasion, heroic volume. Despite a convincing snarl at the end of his third movement solo, and body language that alternately suggested seduction, vengeance, and an arrogance that extended beyond the confines of the stage, he seemed a pretty lightweight hero.

Männisto, in turn, exhibited a lovely, sad voice and an inherent gentleness that were touching in an understated way. Dausgaard appeared to keep gesturing for more volume and emotion from her, but it was not forthcoming. Her expressionless portrayal failed to arouse much sympathy for her character. As with Kullervo itself, it was a reading easier to respect than to love.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.