Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 2,
No. 4. Horn Concerto.
Ari Rasilainen, cond; Martin Orraryd (perc);
Esa Tapani (hn); Norrköping SO
CPO 999 969 (70:54)
Symphonies: No. 3;
Ari Rasilainen, cond; Rheinland-Pfalz St PO
CPO 999 970 (62:40)
Chamber Music: III,
“The Nocturnal Dances of Don Juan Quixote”;
Elegy for Sebastian Knight.
Introduction and Tango Overture
Ralf Gothóni, cond;
Arto Noras (vc);
Ralf Gothóni (pn);
Mika Väyrynen (acc);
Virtuosi di Kuhmo
cpo 777 147 (73:08)
Aulis Sallinen is Finland’s preeminent composer. His reputation rests on his eight symphonies and six operas. In 2002, cpo—which has put us in its debt many times before—began a comprehensive series of Sallinen’s symphonic and orchestral
. The conductor Ari Rasilainen led performances of the First and Seventh Symphonies (
27:6) and the Eighth, the latter coupled with the composer’s Violin Concerto (
29:1). Since then, issues have appeared at approximate intervals of one per year, the most recent being the above disc of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5. Eventually, knowing this company, the complete set should appear in a boxed edition, although that may be some time away. As of writing, Sallinen (b. 1935) remains very active and was made composer in residence of the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic in 2007, so cpo may well be awaiting the appearance of a Ninth. (Likewise, the Sixth is yet to turn up in this series.)
Before devoting himself full time to composition, Sallinen had been a member of a jazz band that played tangos (a popular dance form in Finland), and in the 1960s he was appointed manager of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Both these activities have had a lasting influence on his music.
His early work, as with so many composers of his generation, leaned towards serialism, but by the time of his Second Symphony he had returned to a post-modern tonal harmony, and acquired certain textural and structural fingerprints. His expert orchestration has always been strong and spare, often achieving a chilling effect by concentrating on the lower and higher extremes of the spectrum without much mid-range filling in (which would supply more warmth). He heightens thematic lines through doubling. For instance, a flute may be doubled by high piano, harp, or glockenspiel; growling basses may be reinforced by bass clarinet. He has a tendency to separate his musical argument into distinct planes, where themes work themselves out separately, yet still throw each other into sharp relief. These planes can be textural as much as thematic: Sallinen likes string washes permeated with harp glissandos. His music is primarily an assembly of individual entities; a “mosaic” is the term adopted by the composer himself.
While the atmosphere of Sallinen’s music is generally brooding and uneasy, it also contains ironic references to popular idioms of the 19th and 20th centuries: grotesque marches, mordant tangos, and militaristic brass fanfares. This parodistic element increased significantly around the time of his third opera, the antiwar satire
The King Goes Forth to France
(1983), and is anticipated in the Fourth Symphony of four years earlier (although there are signs of it in the Second as well). It is an identifiable characteristic of Sallinen’s middle period symphonies (Nos. 2–5), and even more so of the chamber-orchestra works from the same period.
With the Sixth, “From a New Zealand Diary,” and Seventh, “The Dreams of Gandalf,” the composer’s symphonic writing became more expansive, even pictorial. The influence of Sibelius is more marked in these later works, although Sallinen seems to have returned to formal succinctness with the Eighth Symphony and the Horn Concerto (both from 2000).
As with previous releases in the series, the first disc detailed above brings together early and recent works. The Second Symphony, subtitled “Dialogue,” is a conversation between the orchestra and a solo percussionist, the latter’s armory including a substantial part for xylophone. Thematic and rhythmic cells are swapped between soloist and orchestra, effectively making the work a percussion concerto. The element of parody appears in the form of a ghostly waltz figure that put me in mind of the hurdy-gurdy waltz in Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2. Percussion and parody are even more present in the brief Fourth Symphony. Its first movement, a procession of quirky motifs over a march-like accompaniment, is not far removed from Prokofiev. The second movement, titled “Dona nobis pacem,” is subdued and unsettled. The extended third movement is notable for a celebratory cacophony of bells and tuned percussion, though an underlay of irony persists to the bitter end. The much later Horn Concerto begins in a declamatory and dramatic mood. Orchestral textures have been pared back, though the composer’s favorite string washes, bells, and piano doublings are still present. A buoyant scherzo in the episodic, dance-driven second movement brings real momentum, pitting the horn against what sounds like a baritone sax. (I have no score at hand to check.) The Concerto concludes with playful virtuosity and a witty series of false endings. The program closes with
, a powerful early work written as an elegy for a young man who was shot while scaling the Berlin Wall. This 10-minute tone poem is regarded as the cumulation of Sallinen’s serial period. It depicts the youth’s tragedy in an expressionist language the composer was later to modify. This is the only disc (so far) to employ a different orchestra. The Norrköping band has a fine track record, however, having taped the complete symphonies of Peterson-Berger and Wirén for cpo, and works by Pettersson and others for BIS. It is superbly recorded, with great depth in the soundstage and a slightly soft edge that benefits the bulk of the program. Rasilainen’s work is confident and sensitive, and the two soloists are excellent, especially the impressive hornist Esa Tapani. While the Horn Concerto is a premiere recording, the other works have appeared elsewhere. The strongest competition comes in the Fourth Symphony, from James DePreist and the Malmö SO (BIS 607), coupled with an equally fine Fifth Symphony. The Malmö players, as recorded, are very much “in your face”; their irony is more biting as a result.
The two symphonies on the second disc represent, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Sallinen’s orchestral work. The Third brings an atmospheric breadth to the proceedings. It opens with a theme in the high woodwinds that flutters away from, and then back to, a rocking two-note motif. These two notes are a semitone apart, an interval often employed by the composer. The effect is of a bird flitting among branches of a wintry tree. The woodwind’s cries are underscored by deep bass notes from below, and a series of soft brass chords—precisely the same elements that Britten used to create a scene of dawn breaking in
. However, this is not a tone poem, it is a symphony, and Sallinen plunges into a rigorous development of these motifs in two-part counterpoint. Again, there is a gulf between the high and low-pitched ends of the orchestral spectrum. The music grows and develops organically, through moments of stasis, dramatic outbursts, and finally into a memorable climactic passage where a heart-on-sleeve cello melody struggles to assert itself against aggressive bursts of repeated notes from trumpets and side drum. A more fragmented approach is adopted in the Fifth Symphony, written for Rostropovich and the Washington National Orchestra. The subtitle, “Washington Mosaics,” refers to structure. We hear the usual episodes—dramatic statements, for example, involving trombones and tuned percussion, and quiet passages of anticipation and explosive fanfares—but they are broken up into fragments, juxtaposed almost randomly, as in a mosaic. (And, like a mosaic, the finished product makes sense as an artistic whole.) Shostakovich is possibly an influence here. A queasily harmonized hurdy-gurdy waltz reappears, but seems to topple into disaster at every turn. The final movement integrates the various episodes more smoothly, creating a feeling of summing up, and building a genuinely symphonic momentum. Rasilainen and his regular orchestra produce performances of sensitivity and clarity, aided by a stunning recording. Anyone curious about the symphony in contemporary music should own this disc.
Four of the five works on the “chamber music” CD are mini-concertos for a solo instrument and string orchestra, two featuring piano, one with cello, and one with accordion. In this intimate world, Sallinen’s ironic humor and populist influences are more prevalent, notably the tango in the
Introduction and Tango Overture
, and again (with a stronger hint of jazz) in
Chamber Music III,
“The Nocturnal Dances of Don Juan Quixote.” The latter piece, from 1986, has been recorded several times; it is the clearest example of the composer’s playful side, even though the Don’s jazzy nocturnal adventures tend to lose their way and collapse into spasms of fragmentary deconstruction, perhaps mirroring the state of the well-known literary character’s mind. The distinguished cellist Arto Noras gave the first performance of the work, and previously recorded it in 1988 for Finlandia. The “Barabbas Variations” (2000) are similarly subject to a process of musical deconstruction. Throughout the work, scherzando rhythms and rapid scale-like themes are repeatedly brought to a sudden halt by abrupt cluster chords from the accordion. Since this recording, the pianist and conductor Ralf Gothóni has made a new arrangement of the piece with piano replacing the accordion, but it is hard to conceive how the piano would reproduce the long held notes and distinctive swells of the other instrument. Despite the accordion’s presence, there is less of a tango inflection to this music; it is a set of evolving variations on themes from the composer’s chamber oratorio,
(also available in this series on cpo 777 077, with the same accordionist in the ensemble). Nothing in this program could be called light music, least of all Chamber Music IV, “Metamorphoses” (on
Elegy for Sebastian Knight
) with its hard-edged piano-writing. The
being expanded was an early work for solo cello, written when Sallinen was still an adherent to the 12-tone school. Noras provides a thoughtful performance of this short piece prior to the 17-minute “Metamorphoses” for piano and strings. There is much more to this music than I have touched on here: it is packed with ideas and transformative procedures of consuming interest. Performances are punchy, and the sound, while dryer than that of the symphonic releases, is sharp and clear.
The Sallinen series is turning out to be one of cpo’s most impressive projects in every way.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
Chamber Music no 4 "Metamorphoses" by Aulis Sallinen
Ralf Gothóni (Piano)
Virtuosi di Kuhmo
Period: 20th Century
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