This is a wonderful set of the major orchestral music by Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen (born 1935). It contains the five CDs previously – and also still – available separately from cpo of the eight symphonies and some of the concerti and other orchestral works. Although it features two different orchestras, the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Ari Rasilainen is the one conductor throughout. cpo proudly states that "these new productions involved the close personal collaboration of the composer." This is not to try and confer upon them any sense of definitiveness. For that's hardly necessary. They're great performances.
These musicians are fine advocates for the subtly tonal and hugely varied symphonic world of Sallinen. And it is indeed the variety of the composer's invention that is likely to be one of the first aspects of his music to strike you. This he shares with fellow Finn, Einojuhani Rautavaara, by whom he has been somewhat overshadowed, yet like whom he seems able to turn his hand to many different forms of music. Nor is this an impression supported by the fact that the CDs contain the music not in chronological order: the substantive works are, respectively, Symphonies number 1 and 7 (CD 1), 2 Symphony number 4 (CD 2), Symphonies number 3 and 5 (CD 3), Symphony number 6 (CD 4), and Symphony number 8 (CD 5). Each except CD 3 contains at least one supportive overture, concerto or similar. This is a serviceable and accessible way to have put together the set of individual CDs in the first place (they were recorded between 2002 and 2004 and released between 2003 and 2009) and a great way to offer them now.
Sallinen's music should be called conservative when compared with the other leading Finnish composers, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Magnus Lindberg. It's lusher, more figurative and pays closer homage to the orchestral priorities of a century and more ago. This should not devalue it, though: it's music that's full of vigor, originality and expert technicality.
Sallinen's is not, though, music of intense speculation or experimentation. There are moments, indeed, well into the first symphony, say [CD.1 tr.2], when the development is not so fast as you might want. Nothing like Sibelius' impetus. Yet the musicians here make the most of the delicacy of Sallinen's harmonies and his expert orchestration. They're obviously utterly at home in his evocative and finely-wrought orchestration and instrumentation. Listen to the reduced palette of Chorali [CD.1. tr.3] and the balletic seventh symphony [CD.1 tr.4] with its deliberately halting meters, for example.
At times, you'll hear nuances from other composers… the fourth symphony is decidedly redolent of the suppressed humor of Shostakovich, for example. Throughout, what will strike you is Sallinen's highly inventive writing for individual instruments – pitched percussion, woodwind and brass in particular. The Horn Concerto is a remarkably lyrical and mellifluous work in the same spirit. At the same time, the symphonies reflect a mature and highly effective sense of structure. The Third, for example, makes intelligent use of varying tempi, repetition and motivic advancement to present its musical ideas. The playing of the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz in this case is particularly sensitive, without ever a hint of coyness or undue reserve. In Sallinen's program note for the first performance, in 1975, he writes that "Symphonic thinking… lies above all in the structure of one movement, not so much in a multi-movement structure." It's hardly surprising, then, that the third was the composer's first multi-movement symphony. In fact, each movement does have its own clear characteristics. But there's a tonal unity (and a togetherness of tempi) to satisfy the listener, and which Rasilainen handles with considerable expertise and dexterity.
The fifth symphony was written a decade later – a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra Association and its then chief conductor, Rostropovich. At the same time, Sallinen had found the continuity required to fulfill the commission of his fifth string quartet almost completely elusive. World events deeply disturbed Sallinen. Making a virtue of necessity, he produced a work that was openly discontinuous with the subtitle, "Pieces of Mosaic". Both orchestras make a point of somehow both respecting the personal elements and concerns that Sallinen's music reflects and bring enough out of the score to indicate that these were factors in the compositions without indulging the corresponding emotions to the detriment of the works as self-standing creations. Subtleties in tempi, nuance and suggestion are all given their due; but never dwelled on.
The sixth, paired here with the Cello Concerto from 1976, dates from 1990. As its title (From a New Zealand Diary) suggests, there is a strong antipodean connection… the commission came from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Sallinen visited the country before composing what is his largest and one of his most persuasive symphonic works. It's barely impressionistic of New Zealand. Yet something of the wildness and remoteness can be detected in the four long movements &ndesh; a certain bleakness and indifference, perhaps, to the humans that live there. In this gentle yet potentially empty evocation of environment, Sallinen introduces and repeats a sort of threat. The orchestra is a large one and the players of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra are in control and well aware of the persuasive power of the giant sweeps and broad yet well-kept contours of the music from start to finish: the threat is always contained. The Cello Concerto has a similar feeling of holding back. Absent are long mellow lines of melancholy or heroics. Nothing is miniature; yet nothing is grandiose. Again, the players have it just right.
The fifth and final CD pairs the Violin Concerto with the Symphony number 8 and the orchestral pieces, Shadows and The Palace Rhapsody. The former is atmospheric in the way in which Bax is, rather than Sibelius. It has the air of a late piece… hesitation and being pared down – as do the late symphonies of Shostakovich. Its title is Autumnal Fragments, after all. This is the world première recording. It has the nature of the sketch, the sense that everything is possible. Which could be hard to achieve in performance. The Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz does very well in that respect. Once again (see above, the Fourth Symphony) Sallinen's concern is for the sounds of individual instruments… the woodwind a few minutes into the start of the Symphony, for instance [CD.5. tr.2]. The Violin Concerto dates from over 30 years earlier. Again, this is less lyrical than expository; there is a concern with sound and form more than beauty. Though it is beautiful music. And there is humor in this work. There is a suppressed, almost wry, though somewhat serious humor in other parts of Sallinen's symphonic work. This manifests itself as the kind of spontaneity which is so well conveyed by the vibrant and precise playing of both orchestras on this set. The Palace Rhapsody Op. 72 is a mildly jazzy work for for winds, percussion, harp and piano.
The acoustics are good throughout. Two venues were used: the Ludwigshafen Philharmonie (CDs 1, 3 and 5), the De Geer Hall, Norrköping (CDs 2 and 4) with plenty of space and atmosphere – yet nothing attempting to make the music sound more spectacular than it is. The booklets that come with each CD are up to cpo's usual standard… descriptive texts and essays about the works in German, English and French, brief biographies and a couple of artist photographs. Full details and credits. Practical yet illuminating.
If Sallinen is new to you, this is an excellent place to start. If you already have one or more of these pieces (there is a cycle on Bis) but want another light shone on this pleasing music and/or want to supplement what you have with a complete set, this cpo release can be had for under $45 and can be safely recommended.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.