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CD Review

Einojuhani Rautavaara

12 Concertos

  • Concerto for Violin 1,a
  • Concerto for Cello, Op. 41 2,b
  • Concerto for Double Bass "Angel of Dusk" 3,c
  • Ballad for Harp & Strings 4,d
  • Concerto for Harp 1,e
  • Cantus Arcticus "Concerto for Birds & Orchestra", Op. 61 1
  • Concerto for Flute "Dances with the Winds", Op. 69 1,f
  • Concerto for Clarinet 1,g
  • Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet & Symphonic Winds "Annunciations" 1,h
  • Concerto for Piano #1, Op. 45 1,i
  • Concerto for Piano #2 6,i
  • Concerto for Piano #3 "Gift of Dreams" 7,j
a Elmar Oliveira, violin
b Marko Ylönen, cello
c Esko Laine, double bass
d Reija Bister, harp
e Marielle Nordmann, harp
f Patrick Gallois, piccolo, alto & bass flute
g Richard Stoltzman, clarinet
h Kari Jussila, organ
i Ralf Gothóni, piano
j Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
1 Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
2 Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Max Pommer
3 Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
4 Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas
5 Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Max Pommer
6 Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
7 Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Ondine ODE1156-2Q
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Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) is Finland's most prominent living composer; he can also be considered (one of) that country's greatest composers since Sibelius. Yet his music can too often be music which you think you know (and don't); or which is known only from one or two examples (the Cantus Arcticus, for example); or which is mischaracterized, misunderstood even… the amorphous output of a latter-day Romantic "also ran"! If you think you might (blushingly and/or secretly) find yourself with such an understanding, then this admirable set of four CDs from Ondine will serve as a tonic. If you're familiar with Rautavaara's music, you'll also be glad of this set: it contains in some cases the only, in others (also) the best, recordings of this very important area (the concerti) of Rautavaara's work.

Indeed, the eleven pieces named as "concerto" (some have subtitles… "Dances with the Winds" (flute concerto), "Angel of Dusk" (double bass), "Gift of Dreams" (3rd piano) and "Annunciations" (organ, winds) as well as the aforementioned Cantus Arcticus (birds) in the set plus the Ballad for Harp and Strings are among Rautavaara's most characteristically beautiful, gentle and penetratingly original works. "Original" is an important concept. The music is largely tonal, but it inhabits a sound world of great depth and confidence, in the ways, almost, in which the symphonies of, say, Schumann, Brahms and Sibelius himself did.

Rautavaara's concerti also occupy a somewhat conventional position in the variety of forms the concerto can take, from its origins as an integrated form for members of the Baroque orchestra, through soloist-as-hero/heroine in the late nineteenth century, back to concerti for orchestra. For Rautavaara the model is definitely one of opposition – the soloist in conflict with the orchestra. The soloist stands out and stands for the individual, perhaps irretrievably, and uncompromisingly, against all-comers.

But Rautavaara's are not concerti of robust, bombastic or unduly bravura mien. Maybe that's because Rautavaara's music is essentially gentle (though not genteel), serious (though not grave) and thoughtful (though not ponderous). His concerti have a lot to say aside from the interests in the counter-play of instrument and orchestra. They're neither races (to the loudest realm, or first to finish) nor foregone conclusions. Through-composed, they sensitively and comfortably explore the result of privileging the themes, textures and sounds generally of one instrument (at times, Yes, even pitching it) against others. Yet for Rautavaara each solo instrument still always belongs to the orchestra "against" which it is working. It's capable, for example, of the same degrees of variety and surprise as is a full orchestra; and is never the wayward child of other writers in the form. An amazing balance, in short, between control and expression.

The cello concerto, the second piece on the first CD, sets the tone: the cello itself is the first instrument to be heard, as a solo, in the first concerto (from 1968) by Rautavaara. Written at a time when the composer had already four symphonies, the opera Kaivos and three string quartets to his credit, it hints (stylistically and in terms of musical priorities) at what would occupy him for over a decade. In hindsight, it's as though Rautavaara wanted to carry out a systematic exploration of how the different instruments and instrumental combinations would work. Thankfully, the music is much more organic, spontaneous and generally fresh. It's nevertheless instructive to look for common ground.

The violin concerto (1977) is also highly virtuosic and melodious. It displays the instrument's tonally lighter characteristics well. Elmar Oliveira makes as good a violin soloist – vigorous yet sensitive – as Marko Ylönen does cellist. Both instrumentalists clearly know the music, its idiom and the intentions of the composer very well. The first CD concludes with the a concerto for an instrument for which not many such exist: the double bass. You might expect gloom, brood and darkness of mood. Not at all. It's an at times quite fragmented piece with pizzicato as well as arco passages, and immediate alternations between the two. Rautavaara's gift for lyricism nevertheless is evident throughout. At over 26 minutes, "Angel of Dusk" (the concerto for double bass) is one of the longest concerti on the whole set. Only two of the other named concerti ("Annunciations", "Gift of Dreams") are comparable in scope. The orchestra is the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

This sequencing of works is a positive feature of this Ondine collection. They are grouped in ways that reflect contrasting mood as much as the convenience of putting like with like. The entire listening experience is stimulating and satisfying. That's also due, without doubt, to the inevitably different soloists – even two different harpists, and both Ralf Gothóni and Vladimir Ashkenazy as pianists in concerti 1, 2 and 3 respectively – as well as a total of seven separate conductors. It's a testament to the quality of this enterprise that those common factors which need to be carried across all the works (the composer's gift at orchestration, the integrity of his palette and steady-handed architectural construction) do indeed emerge as constants. Yet at the same time the room for individual interpretation of the particularities are never stifled for the sake of spurious consistency.

The second CD also contains three works. As in the violin and cello concerti on the first, and indeed the three pieces on CD 3 and the final piano concerto, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is on top form in the Harp Concerto (2000) and "Cantus Arcticus" (1972). Restrained, full, sonorous yet not overbearing for all their fluency in and with Rautavaara's style. The Ballad for Harp and Strings (1973/1981) uses the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. It's a subtle piece without the grander conception of other of the composer's concerti. It's nevertheless a very pleasing piece with Reija Bister's playing highlighting the qualities of the harp which make it a suitable solo instrument in an orchestral context. Similarly, Marielle Nordmann exposes those less idyll- and tuneful-like sonorities in the Harp Concerto, which is twice as long, ought to sound twice as weighty with three downbeat movements, but in fact is full of life. Interestingly, it's scored for two harps in the body of the orchestra, which "assist" the soloist. The "Cantus Arcticus" remains, of course, one of Rautavaara's most often played works. The bird song he taped himself in northern Finland. Segerstam takes the three melancholy movements more slowly than do other conductors in other recordings. Although this does not increase the sense of desolation which distinguishes the concerto, nor particularly add to the atmosphere, it somehow focuses slightly greater attention on the taped components.

CD 3 has the flute (1975), clarinet (2001) and organ, brass quintet and wind (1977) concerti. The first is perhaps the slightest of the three, seeming at times to meander as much as to make an impact by virtue of memorable themes and textures. On reaching its conclusion, however, the listener is left with a sense of certain qualities which the flute possesses – as may happen with a more explicitly impressionistic composer like Debussy. An early work, it's actually written for four instruments: concert and bass flutes in the outer movements and piccolo then alto flute in the second and third respectively. Given the disparate tempi of the four movements of the work, both Patrick Gallois (soloist) and Segerstam have kept the interest up well. Richard Stoltzman's clarinet playing is equally convincing in the much later Clarinet Concerto. The work was written for him; he gave its first performance too. It's a dramatic (almost rhetorical) and determined work. There are almost jazzy passages, though it hasn't the "swing" of the Ebony Concerto. In the cases of both these concerti for wind instruments and those for the harp, the balance between quieter instruments (even Stoltzman's playing is soft, if not quite subdued) and orchestra has been well achieved. "Annunciations" for organ, brass quintet and "symphonic wind orchestra" should be seen as another wind concerto… the organ is technically also a wind instrument. For all the piece's stamp of definiteness and certainty, it has a strong mystical tinge, which is well conveyed by Kari Jussila and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, again under Segerstam. Starting slowly, it uses color and changes in texture to achieve some remarkable effects. It may remind you of Bartók and Messiaen – but is to be considered as much its own work as any other of the pieces on this set. The performance is notable in the way it makes such an approachable whole from music which could sound fragmented and sporadic. The organ a sense of fragility concerto shares with the music for flute. Like the wind, we feel the music more while we're actually listening to it; like the wind we cannot forget its effects after it's gone. This is not,though, wispy or ephemeral music; nor is it dense or stolidly immovable. The performers obviously understand this very well.

The three piano concerti (from 1969, 1989 and 1998) take up the final CD. They're very different works – although all from the composer's neo-Romantic period – with very different conceptions of the soloist's role. The first Piano Concerto dates from 1969, the same time as the Cello Concerto, and was actually written for Rautavaara himself to play, limited though his keyboard prowess apparently was. Ralf Gothóni (with the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Max Pommer) is full of confidence and clarity in moving the work's three movements forward at just the right pace. It's perhaps the least typical of Rautavaara's most familiar styles. There are even passages redolent of Gershwin. Gothóni is right, though, to present these in such as way as to suggest we should accept a wider spectrum of styles as typical of the composer than perhaps we do. The same soloist (for whom it was written) is just as clean and unambiguous in the Second Concerto from 20 years later – this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. This is a more experimental and quizzical work. There is much to latch onto and marvel at, though at times one feels the performance lacks the atmosphere which so many other of the composer's works rely on. In the third piano concerto Vladimir Ashkenazy is both soloist and conductor with/of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra again. Again, the concerto was written for him; since he was conducting, certain complexities (particularly the absence of frequent changes in time signature) were avoided. A move towards, if not lushness, then greater coherence in the feel of the concerti can be detected from the first to the second to the third concerto. If you're fond of Rautavaara's lushness, wry harmonics and very open and even relationship with the natural world, the piano concerti might at first be disappointing. But the playing of the soloists and the way they support Rautavaara's idiom (the third, for example, stops – almost in mid phrase) ought to go some way towards adjusting your expectations, and adjusting them for the better.

Definitely a set to seek out and buy if the composer, his style, or the particular blend of late twentieth (and indeed contemporary) orchestral music appeals, or makes you curious. It's a musical world that is aware of pantonality, acoustic experiment, instrumental nuance and a flair for melodic, timbral and harmonic richness mixed with a rather fragile transparency; and has a lot to say to listeners of many predispositions. The acoustics are close and appropriately vital. The booklet that comes with the boxed set is a little slim at under a dozen substantive pages. The recordings for the most part are already existing ones – and from a variety of venues and recording sessions. To have them grouped so attractively, and at such a very reasonable price too, is a delight. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.

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