Summary for the Busy Executive: A Finnish Hindemith with a sense of humor.
Contrary to popular belief, the period after about 1910 doesn't suffer from a lack of great composers, but from a surplus. Since great is rarer than very, very good, there are even more very, very good ones. I suspect much of this stems from the factory model of conservatory training. So many young people go in every year, and so many come out.
Don't ask me to define "great." Not only can I not define it, I can't even come up with reasonable bases of comparison. At present, no one dominates contemporary composition as Beethoven, Brahms, or Wagner did back in the Nineteenth Century. George Perle remarked that with Stravinsky's death, western music was without a great composer for the first time in 600 years. Certainly, no one has stood out on the stage since to that extent. Furthermore, statements about lasting value mean very little until the music actually does last, and that's as much about career as about quality. When we make statements about greatness, most of us assume that we praise intrinsic quality rather than dumb luck. Nevertheless, we discover "unknown" masterpieces all the time, and some junk has lasted for quite a while. Even "The Maiden's Prayer" trots out occasionally. Consequently, I suppose I mean by "great" what most people do: the music moves me more than most other music does. In other words, it's great to me and, I hope, to others. It's a necessary part of my life. I want it to stick around, so others can be as moved as I am.
The Finn Aulis Sallinen ranks as one of his nation's Grand Old Men of music, but young Turks like Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Magnus Lindberg have overshadowed his reputation outside the country. Of his own generation, Einojuhani Rautavaara has also eclipsed him. I have a spotty acquaintance with Sallinen's music. The works I've heard have appeared on the same programs as pieces I actively sought out. What I heard hadn't encouraged me to listen to more. On the other hand, I willingly admit I probably came across minor pieces. Many consider opera Sallinen's main achievement, of which I know none.
Before I heard this CD, Sallinen struck me as a solid craftsman, a writer who has absorbed certain postwar avant-garde techniques within the context of pre-war Modernism, very similar to Rautavaara but fundamentally more conservative. It takes him a while to become something more than that, but he does indeed make the leap. There's a classical objective in Sallinen, reminiscent of composers like Hindemith and Piston, less of an Expressionist bent.
Mauermusik (wall-music) comes from the early Sixties and the Cold War. Inspired by a newspaper account of a young man shot by East German guards as he tried to cross the Berlin Wall, Sallinen wrote in effect his calling card, the work which announced him to the attention of the world. I've never liked this piece. It proceeds in fits, like much of the advanced music of the period, but it lacks both momentum and a truly memorable idea and doesn't differ significantly from at least fifty other scores from the period. I call this kind of work an aural swamp – arrhythmic, spots of little more than color. Critic Tim Page dubs the genre International Beige.
The Symphony #2 "Symphonic Dialogue" inhabits a fluid space between one-movement symphony and concerto, with a prominent part for solo percussionist. Sallinen has indicated a distrust of virtuosity "for its own sake" (a fairly safe position; just once I'd like to hear someone defend virtuosity for its own sake) and wants the work taken as a symphony. At any rate, for me it marks a great advance on Mauermusik. For one thing, the composer writes more tightly, even elegantly, working through two basic ideas: a descending scale (and its inverse, a rising scale) and an arpeggio. He generates authentic symphonic movement over its roughly fifteen minutes – the sense that you move from one place to another through transformation. The use of rhythm – appropriately enough in a work featuring percussion – accomplishes much of this momentum. Furthermore, like many one-movement symphonies, Sallinen's second breaks down into a four-part classical structure: vigorous, slow, scherzo or intermezzo, and finale. Unlike most of these, Sallinen distinguishes the sections without significantly altering the basic tempo. The characters, not the speeds, of these parts differ. For me, the third section – the intermezzo, a slow, spectral waltz based on the arpeggio idea – stands out from the four. A whiff of symphonic mechanics still clings to parts of this score, as if the materials demand to be worked on without connecting to the composer's need to express.
However, the fourth symphony, from seven years later (1979), significantly improves upon the second in this regard. It consists of three movements of psychic distress, very similar in mood to late Shostakovich, but without borrowing that idiom. Traditional development gives way almost entirely to strong, even grotesque juxtapositions, shown at the very outset, where a vigorous march in brass and percussion gets quickly interrupted by near-static, drawn-out chords in the strings. All the material of the movement appears in the opening measures, but two ideas dominate – the half-step and a descending triad – which generate, both by themselves and in combination, most of the ideas. A jerky Ländler – shades of Mahler! – takes up a good deal of the movement's meat, and the whole thing ends inconclusively, like a dropped box of ball bearings skittering off to all corners of the room. The slow movement, titled "Dona nobis pacem," begins much like a Shostakovich recitative – solo instrument against string pedal – but moves to a long-lined threnody. The contrast comes with the interruption of a ghostly drummer, and the mood turns from a lament to a wraithlike march. Again, the movement ends inconclusively, as lament and march intertwine. After a while, you realize that all the material derives from the two main ideas of the first movement. The finale, filled with tuned percussion, comes without a break, growing from the low chords that end the slow movement. Again, it derives from the first-movement opening, whose connections become clearer as the finale progresses. From the swirl of themes, one idea (which Martin Anderson's excellent liner notes describe as an "ostinato") dominates, a variation of the descending triad from the first movement. The idea proliferates manically, but a chorale theme (a cross between a Sibelian symphonic chorale and "Bess, You is My Woman Now") opposes it, reining it in. The ostinato, however reduced to an ember, reasserts itself and threatens to tear the movement to pieces and toss the bits to the four winds. The chorale comes back, this time incorporating the ostinato as both a counterpoint and an extension. One begins to realize that the first is the structural flip side of the second. Ideas from the previous movements gradually make themselves felt, including a brilliant passage where the first-movement march rhythm beats against the near-static chords, thus encapsulating the modus operandi of contrast in the symphony. A fabulous work.
I can say the same for the two-movement horn concerto of 2002, "Campane ed Arie" (bells and arias). The subtitle puns on a standard instruction to horn players, "campana in aria" (bell in the air, or bell up). Beyond that, the sound of bells – celesta, marimba, tubular chimes, glockenspiel, and so on – strongly colors the orchestra. The first movement grows out of a rising, slightly chromatic line with, at first, answering fanfares from the horn. The piccolo comes up with a twisted-taffy version of those calls and introduces a phantasmagoric element into the music – like ghosties and goblins flitting across the night sky. This is nocturnal music par excellence, where deep stillness plays off against the slightly chilly scurrying of the unknown and unseen. The horn answers the spooks with increasing force until it breaks into a full-throated cadenza. Afterwards, it grows increasingly lyrical and the rising scale in the orchestra becomes more diatonic until a kind of peace (more like one holding one's breath, waiting for something) is reached. The second movement starts out as a thrill ride, again generated by a rising scalar line, this time in conventional minor. The music builds into a hectic samba – one doesn't normally associate sambas with Finland – before it runs out of gas and settles into a long, lyrical passage, another aria for the horn. In time, the music becomes more and more agitated, with much double-tonguing in the brass, and the opening material returns, but more stiffly, without that samba beat. The tempo increases, and the piece explodes to a series of false endings of relative stasis, only to build up again and fade. The piece ends with the quiet tolling of bells.
From the way the liner notes talk, this concerto doesn't seem to get much play outside Finland, but it certainly has a greater potential audience than Finns alone. Horn players are always looking for new, worthy work, and this piece fits the bill admirably. All three scores receive very good performances – very good without crossing over into stunning – although the horn soloist, Esa Tapani, is definitely world-class, handling the difficulties with panache. The CPO engineers provide excellent sound.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz