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CD Review

Einojuhani Rautavaara

  • Cantus Arcticus (1972)
  • String Quartet #4 (1975)
  • Symphony #5 (1988)
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Max Pommer
Sirius String Quartet
Catalyst 62671-2
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Tim Page, perhaps the most influential U.S. classical reviewer since Harold Schoenberg, now gets to indulge a music-lover's fantasy: telling the recording companies what to record. Don't you wish it was you? He is executive producer for BMG's Catalyst label – a venue for contemporary music – and has already issued at least 6 CDs, including this one, two featuring the music of James MacMillan, and a spectacular Revueltas collection (Catalyst 62672-2).

In his book of essays Music from the Road, Page writes:

A little provincialism can be good for the soul. If I were asked to name two parts of the world where particularly engaging and original music is now being written, I would unhesitatingly select Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Their remove – geographic, cultural and political – from the European mainstream has enforced unusual creative independence. Composers Aulis Sallinen, Joonas Kokkonen and Einojuhani Rautavaara, in Scandinavia, and György Ligeti, Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik, in Eastern Europe, for all their differences, share a craggy, idiosyncratic individuality, little affected by shifts of aesthetic fashion.

These composers are by no means naïve, nor are they primitives. They have absorbed modernist techniques, and they know and understand the great musical literature of other lands. But it is a transplanted understanding, and by necessity very different from the results of exposure to an unbroken musical continuum. And seeds grow differently on unfamiliar soil.

As is often the case with me and contemporary music, I first heard the work of Rautavaara on a recording of various composers. I had bought it for a performance of a piece by somebody else, and the Rautavaara (Suite de Lorca) was just gravy. From the first few notes, I knew I was listening to something original and arrestingly dramatic. This doesn't happen all that often, so I added the name to my list of Look-fors. Although post-war and making full use of contemporary devices, Rautavaara's music has the focus and energy of the modern period, say the 20s and 30s. There's a relentless forward motion to his music. Listening to it is like getting on an express train: it will get you somewhere, come hell or high water. Rautavaara also has the ability to create the memorable (and original) musical gesture. You may not remember themes, but you certainly remember the major signposts in a work by him. His musical landscape isn't the usual tasteful, bone-white, international-esperanto fog.

Despite the diversity of the contemporary musical scene, I believe something very basic unites almost every composer. I find it hard to talk about, precisely because it is so basic. Contemporary music differs from modern in its different sense of passing time. Modern music shortened the time span of late romanticism. Events happen, by comparison, at great speed and with little repetition and much elision, so that (at one extreme) the Webern Symphony lasts only as long as a few minutes. Most contemporary music elongates the time span again, so that (at another extreme) Philip Glass can, in Akhnaten, hit an e-minor chord for a seven seconds short of an eternity.

Rautavaara's music, on the one hand, sounds as if it moves in the traditional modern way. However, this is illusion. There is, in effect, very little musical materia in his work. As Page expresses it in the liner notes to the CD, it's like watching an artist's exhaustive study of the possibilities of gray. The music, I hasten to add, is more exciting than the description makes it sound.

The composer describes Cantus Arcticus as a "Concerto for Birds and Orchestra." It uses tape and conventional instruments in a way similar to Hovhaness in his "And God Created Great Whales." Here, the basic material is the cries of Arctic birds. The bird cries gradually become distinct from the orchestra, and the orchestra finds its motives in the bird songs, à la Messiaen. There's also a bit of Respighi, as the orchestra sings beautifully, while the birds murmur in the background. It's a lovely piece. Max Pommer does a wonderful job matching the dynamics of the orchestra to the tape, so that one element seems to grow out of the other. This happens from tape to orchestra and vice versa.

The String Quartet #4 is a formal oddity. Its first movement takes up half the quartet's total time and contains elements of slow movement and scherzo. The scherzo section is the most memorable as solo material begins against a background of indeterminately-pitched slides. Gradually and one by one, the other instruments drop the slides and join with the solo. After the scherzo, the instruments sing intently to the end. The slow movement proper is the most conventional, with its outstanding elements a gorgeous melody against a subtly varied texture. The Expressionist elements of, say, Schoenberg's second string quartet are handled with great freedom and beauty here – less of the air of a manifesto; just the sense that this is the proper expression of the composer's impulse. The finale begins furiously but soon settles into one last meditation to the end. In fact, the entire work seems like one long rumination, with occasional eruptions. The Sirius String Quartet plays with conviction and finds the subtle variety of the piece. This is one of the best postwar quartets I've heard.

I've not yet completely absorbed the long, one-movement Symphony #5, the most ambitious work on the CD and one which shows the greatest kinship with other composers around the Baltic. I can't decide whether to fault either my concentration or the composer's architectural sense. After all, I can listen to a Pettersson and Simpson marathon enthralled, but I break down here. Rautavaara's symphony reminds me somewhat of Ives' Unanswered Question, since long stretches of it contrast three different elements simultaneously: slow chords, angry winds and brass, and a corkscrew line in the violins, turning back on itself and yet moving forward. This provides the symphony's narrative impulse. For about two-thirds of its length, the symphony holds me. Then it falls apart into a series of conventional gestures, and its rather intense momentum dissipates. Echoes of Schoenberg's 5 Pieces for Orchestra and Stravinsky's Le Sacre are taken up and dropped, as if the composer searched for a way to pick up the threads again. Eventually, he returns to his main material and closes well. Pommer and his Leipzig players again show superb control over the symphony's wide dynamic spectrum (the opening is spectacular in this regard) and manage to convey the overall architecture. Pommer even gets a waltz-like quality in the symphony's second half. Since this is probably the only recording for a while, it's a bit pointless to rank it. Nevertheless, I can say that a one-movement work "in shades of gray" is awfully difficult to bring off, and, to a great extent, Pommer does.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz