Celebrating Rautavaara’s 90th Birthday

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EINOJUANI RATAUVAARA: 90th ANNIVERSARY EDITION / RAUTAVAARA: Concerto for Harp & Orchestra. Symphony No. 8, “The Journey.” Isle of Bliss. Garden of Spaces / Marielle Nordmann, hrp; Helsinki Philharmonic Orch.; Leif Segerstam, cond / Missa a Cappella: Kyrie / Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Klava, cond / Cello Concerto No. 1: III. Vivace / Marko Ylönen, cel; Helsinki Philharmonic; Max Pommer, cond / A Finnish Myth / Ostrobothnian Chamber Orch.; Juha Kangas, cond / Song of My Heart / Tanja Tetzlaff, cel; Gunilla Süssmann, pno / Notturno e danza: II. Danza / Pekka Kuusisto, vln; Paavali Jumppanen, pno / Halavan himmeän alla: I. Melancholy / Finnish Radio Chamber Orch.; Timo Nuoranne, cond / Symphony No. 3: I. Langsam, breit, ruhig / Leipzig Radio Symphony Orch.; Max Pommer, cond / Adagio Celeste / National Orchestra of Belgium; Mikko Franck, cond / Ondine ODE 1236-2CD

Here’s a really novel release celebrating Einojuani Rautavaara’s 90th birthday year (he died in 2016, before his 88th birthday): one CD containing two complete works conducted by Leif Segerstam, and another “sampler” CD containing a few complete short pieces and selected highlights from his Missa a Cappella, Cello Concerto No. 1, Halavan himmeän alla and the Third Symphony, all led by various conductors. The easy assessment would be that this is an extraneous release, not intended for listeners who like Rautavaara’s music and may already have these works on other CDs, but for those of us like me who are selective in their Rautavaara collections, it is actually a very fine representation of his work.

As Vladimir Ashkenazy notes on the inlay for this set, the composer “never imitates, never tries to be deliberately original…Combined with a very high level of professionalism, these qualities contribute to one of the most eloquent musical expressions of our time.” But Rautavaara went through several musical styles, as did Stravinsky, except that his were a few more and his musical evolution took place in a shorter period of time. He first came on the scene in the 1950s with pretty modern-sounding pieces, then became even more modernist in form and harmony, but then pulled back to a sort of post-modern Romanticism which is evident in the Harp Concerto from 2000. Through most of the first movement, this could almost (but not quite) be a piece by Sibelius or some other late Romantic composer of the early 20th century, except that it is less busy and more minimal in its use of materials, yet Rautavaara holds your attention by that very slowness and unraveling of the musical progression. It’s a very gentle, almost shy piece, the polar opposite of Alberto Ginastera’s magnificent, dramatic harp concerto, yet it never wallows in bathos and, in the second movement, he shows an unusual use of harmonic movement. The last movement, though also written in broad tempi, is considerably more dramatic in places, wrapping up the concerto in a far less Romantic vein.

The Eighth Symphony, from 1999, is a much more dramatic affair, though also set in primarily slow tempi. It unravels in a series of dramatic outbursts, primarily tonal but with biting bitonal interjections and episodes. Subtitled “The Journey,” it is evidently a journey of the soul, the second movement (“Feroce”) being particularly dramatic, with high-voltage outbursts by the brass as the strings play tense, sustained figures in the upper register. It is a fairly brief episode, however (3:04), and leads without a break into the gentle, reflective third movement, highlighted by sparse scoring and lyrical passages played by the clarinets against shimmering strings. The last movement, also in a slow tempo, is also more dramatic than the first and third but not as violent as the second. An interesting piece!

Oddly, the tone poem Isle of Bliss that opens the second CD sounds like a continuation of the Eighth Symphony. This was one of Rautavaara’s failings: he tended to stay locked into a style and wrote pieces that sounded similar to others. Yet the “Kyrie” from his Missa a Cappella is quite interesting in its use of vocal counterpoint under a broad melodic line, and Garden of Spaces is a light, gossamer piece, utilizing high string tremolos, clarinet and flute swirls, and broad cello section lines against one another, slowly building in intensity to almost ferocious climaxes. The final movement of the Cello Concerto No. 1 is a lively affair in what sounds like modal harmonies, and A Finnish Myth is a wonderful, interesting piece with sharp rhythmic accents played against intense figures played by the strings.

Song of My Heart is a very languid, almost melancholy piece for cello and piano, beautifully played without bathos by Tetzlaff and Süssmann, while the Danza is a sprightly piece for violin and piano. I also liked the choral song “Melancholy” from Halavan himmeän alla (In the Shade of the Willow), as well as the atmospheric first movement of the third symphony. The Adagio Celeste, however, I found mundane and predictable music.

In toto, then, an interesting survey of Rautavaara’s music, some of it quite interesting and some of it not. I am by no means willing to place him on as high a pedestal as that of Sibelius, which of course the record companies do. He had his outstanding moments, to be sure, but also some repetitive or uninteresting ones. As a compilation of several fine works, however, this set is certainly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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