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CD Review

Aulis Sallinen

  • Symphony #1, Op. 24
  • Symphony #7, Op. 71 "The Dreams of Gandalf"
  • Chorali
  • A Solemn Overture (King Lear), Op. 75
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Ari Rasilainen
CPO 999918-2 DDD 62:58
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With his seventieth birthday coming up in 2005, Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen is the subject of a new series of recordings on the CPO label. This, apparently, is the first release. According to booklet, "These new productions involved the close personal collaboration of the composer," who also contributes an essay to the booklet notes, reflecting on how his perceptions of his music have changed since Chorali (1970) and the First Symphony (1971).

Sallinen also writes, "I am inclined to believe that a composer would rather listen to his earlier works when there is a new interpretation to be heard." In other words, don't record old music unless you have something new to say. Rasilainen, another Finn, seems to have taken that to heart. His recordings of Chorali and the First Symphony are not an echo of the excellent versions conducted by Paavo Berglund and Okko Kamu on BIS CD-41, which was my first exposure to Sallinen back in 1988. Rasilainen opens up the music's textures and lightens its potentially oppressive moods. Sallinen's early works used to seem grim indeed, yet here they sound much more compromising. Although I wouldn't want to do without the BIS disc, these new performances put a brand new spin on this music, and are, in their way, essential.

A Solemn Overture was premièred in 1997; it was only after the fact that Sallinen added the subtitle. King Lear was his operatic work-in-progress. "Like a film editor," he writes, "I placed the material on the editing table and arranged it in such a way as to support a composition that lasted about ten minutes." (This was a commission by the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra.) Without becoming programmatic, the Overture evokes both nobility and its degradation, as they apply to Shakespeare's character. Similarly, the Seventh Symphony (1995-96) is connected both to a literary work (Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings) and to a larger work by the composer – a ballet subsequently titled The Hobbit. Rather than attempting to portray the Bilbo Baggins or Frodo in music, however, Sallinen wrote it as "a musical expression of the literary atmosphere and poetry" associated with Tolkien's writings. This is an impressive work, full of color and mystery. At times, Sallinen's music has been compared with Sibelius's, not that one would mistake one for the other; instead, both composers are skillful at building large coherent structures out of smaller building blocks whose most salient virtues are their color and mood, not their apparent structural adaptability.

Rasilainen is the principal conductor of the Rheinland-Palatinate State Philharmonic, an orchestra that is more than eighty years old. Its musicians play impressively here, and cpo's engineering surpasses even that heard on the BIS recording. I don't think any one conductor and label have recorded all of Sallinen's major orchestral works, so this CPO series will be of particular value for the consistency and clarity of its vision, especially if the composer himself remains connected with it. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle