Rare Music by Rautavaara


RAUTAVAARA: Fantasia. In the Beginning. Deux Sérénades. Lost Landscapes / Simone Lamsma, vln; Malmö Symphony Orch., Robert Trevino, cond / Ondine ODE 1405-2

Here’s a recording that :slipped out” earlier this year. When I say “slipped out,” I mean exactly that. It was probably listed in the Naxos New Release Catalog, but I have given up going through those because 80% of the recordings I want to review—normally out-of-central-repertoire music—are never available for download on the music reviewers’ website, and also nowadays, more than half of them also do not become available on the Naxos Music Library streaming site, but lo and behold , this one was listed on both, so here is my review.

These works were all written between 2005 (Lost Landscapes, which was revised in 2015) and 2016 (Deux Sérénades, one of his very last works, completed in 2018 by Kalevi Aho) but are not generally known or performed. In fact, both In the Beginning and Lost Landscapes are first recordings. Violinist Simone Lamsma is featured on all but In the Beginning which does not include a solo violin part.

The Fantasia is one of those Rautavaara works that fit most comfortably into standard concert programs, combining lush lyricism with his usual adventurous harmonies. Yet one never feels that the composer was “cheapening” his art or condescending in his approach to the piece. American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who commissioned the work, played it for the composer who said, “Wow, did I write some beautiful music!” But I’m sure that, had it been a less emotional performance, he might have been a bit more reserved in his praise.

Fortunately for us, Simone Lamsma pours her whole heart into the score. Harmonically speaking, it harks back to, say, early Carl Nielsen rather than the Alban Berg concerto, but the incredibly sustained lyric line of the piece runs like a golden thread through the sensitive yet colorful orchestration, which is very much in Rautavaara’s own personal idiom. The music rises to an ecstatic climax at the mid-point, with throbbing viola section tremolos behind the soloist. In a sense, the continuous evolution of this piece from start to finish is similar to the kind of writing that Wagner did in his own manner. This should definitely be programmed in concerts more often; I can’t imagine anyone who could say that it is too “advanced” or “confusing” for them to grasp.

In the Beginning, described in the liner notes as “an impactful and potentially ambiguous title,” conforming to conductor Pietari Inkinen’s request for an overture-like concert opener, but here the composer poured the full breadth of his imagination into the score. Although also in his neo-Romantic style, there is an undercurrent of unease, possibly even a bit of menace, from the (quiet) opening bars, in which low clarinets play an ominous figure against low strings and, later, brass. The harmonic language here is also more complex, tonal to a point but constantly shifting the inner harmonies so that the tonality itself shifts in and out of neighboring keys. Yet there is that lyrical line played by the violins, not nearly as pretty as the Fantasia, however. It, too, keeps falling through harmonic “traps” into adjacent harmonic fields, and this, plus the constantly nudged-forward yet subtle rhythm, maintains the edginess of the opening bars throughout the work. This is truly Rautavaara at his best. There are even intimations of Ligeti in some of the more complex writing for the string passages in the last third of the piece. Since it only lasts five minutes, Rautavaara was able to create a much denser structure here than in the Fantasia.

With the Deux Sérénades, we return to a more Romanticized musical environment. Written for violinist Hilary Hahn, it is even longer than the Fantasia but in the same basic mold. The biggest difference, to my ears, is the constantly moving inner voices and subtly shifting harmonies, again with that slight nudge forward to give the music movement. The lead violin line is somewhat more complex than in the Fantasia if not as memorable, but this work, too, is not too far removed from the kind of Romantic stuff that most violinists wallow in, so I guess it makes them happy.

Lost Landscapes is yet another neo-Romantic piece. To be honest, however, I found it to be a very weak piece, so much like the first Sérénade that it sounded like an early draft of it, and not a particularly successful one. This was really quite a let-down for me since most of the music up to this point was quite good. But as I said, most classical violinists just wallow in this kind of overly-sentimental claptrap, and so do their audiences, so I’d expect that this, too would become a concert favorite. I did, however, like the second half of Lost Landscapes much more than the first.

Well, at least most of the album is good, and the first two pieces particularly so.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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