Notes and Editorial Reviews
Aulis Sallinen and his slightly older contemporary Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) are currently the grand old men of Finnish music and have been taking turns in the limelight for some time. Sallinen had an opera performed at Covent Garden in the 1980s, while Rautavaara’s breakthrough work, his seventh symphony, Angel of Light, came in 1994. They have each written eight symphonies – and it is as important for a Nordic composer to get beyond seven, because Sibelius didn’t, as it is for one in the German tradition to reach nine, because Beethoven did. A box of Rautavaara’s symphonies came out in 2009 (review) and one of Sallinen’s in 2011. Sallinen has a wide stylistic range, with dance music and jazz at one end and hard-edged modernism at
the other. His music is predominantly tonal: he can write lyrically and rhythmically. Sometimes his idiom seems like a slightly more astringent version of Benjamin Britten, and there are occasional reminiscences of other composers. But he has his own flavour, which you learn to recognize.
Now we have a complete set of Sallinen’s Chamber Music series. These are not actually works of chamber music but works for chamber orchestra, all but the first for one or more solo instruments with a string orchestra. They are therefore direct successors to Hindemith’s Kammermusik series, though unlike those works these were written over a period of over thirty years. A more distant ancestor would be Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The solo parts mostly eschew virtuosity. The works are mostly in a single movement, though often in several sections and they are of moderate length, so the whole set – assuming Sallinen does not intend to add to it – fits onto two CDs. Although some of them have been recorded before this is the first complete set.
Chamber Music I begins in a haze from which fragments emerge leading to a melody which climbs out of clinging textures. It achieves some rhythmic definition featuring Scotch snaps before withdrawing into the mist. There is a serene coda with a beautiful tune. This is the nearest to modernism of the whole set.
Chamber Music II features an alto flute as soloist, which immediately leads one to ask why this lovely instrument is not used more often as a concerto soloist. After an exploratory opening this becomes a gentle dance. A middle section has an extended solo, not really a cadenza, and a slow polonaise. There is a short, quick finale. Of all these works this reminded me most of Britten: it could almost be the flute concerto he did not get round to writing.
After this gentle work, Chamber Music III is a riot. The title is suggestive but there is no formal programme. It is a dialogue between solo cello – enchantingly played by Arto Noras – and string orchestra in which the soloist tries to teach the orchestra some jolly dance tunes – Sallinen played in a dance band in his youth. The orchestra is at first uncomprehending but gets the knack of it but by then the soloist has moved on. I particularly enjoyed the tango section. Later, an accompanied cadenza leads to a moto perpetuo which is repeatedly interrupted before suddenly fading out.
In contrast, Chamber Music IV is a rather sombre and questioning piano concerto in four short movements. It goes back via an earlier version to a solo cello work which was the original Elegy for Sebastian Knight. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov which apparently inspired Sallinen, but not having read it I can’t explore how. The idiom here struck me as rather like Hindemith but with sudden and disconcerting pauses. I liked this work a lot: it is limpid and lyrical and with a strange wondering beauty. The piano part is not virtuosic and indeed is often in single notes.
Chamber Music V is also a piano concerto, this time based on an earlier version in which the solo instrument was an accordion, and also related to another work titled Barabbas Dialogues. This is a melancholy work with an opening featuring trills which reminded me of Scriabin’s tenth piano sonata. Indeed, something of the flickering texture of that work appears here, and builds up an atmosphere of great anxiety with repeated notes and rhythms. There are momentary reminiscences of works as disparate as Scriabin’s last two sonatas, Bach, and the Spanish music of Albeniz and Granados. In a slow middle section there is a suggestion of jazz. The final section starts as a toccata but ends in doubt and uncertainty. It is a strange and haunting work.
Chamber Music VI is for solo string quartet and string orchestra, the same combination which Elgar used in his Introduction and Allegro and also Schoenberg in one of his reworkings of a baroque concerto. Sallinen’s piece is not like either. It is titled 3 invitations au voyage but the implied reference to Baudelaire’s poem or Duparc’s setting thereof is not borne out by anything I can hear. Imagine the string writing of Sibelius tinged with Bartók, though this cannot really convey the character of this music, which also has a yearning chromaticism which is all Sallinen’s own. Towards the end the mood lifts but the sense of tension remains. It is an eloquent, poignant work.
Chamber Music VII features a solo wind quintet, here, as in the previous work, played by an established group. It is a cheerful work, rather in the French tradition of Poulenc and his contemporaries. Each wind instrument gets a chance to shine. I particularly enjoyed the oboe of Nahoko Kinoshita and the clarinet of Gocho Prakov. There are some quiet, contemplative passage but these are graceful rather than poignant. It is an attractive work though perhaps too episodic to be wholly coherent.
Chamber Music VIII is another cello concerto. It is a much more serious work than Chamber Music III. It is subtitled The Trees, All Their Green, which was the title of a volume of poems by Paavo Haavikko, who also wrote the plays on which two of Sallinen’s operas were based. He died just as Sallinen was beginning work on this piece. The solo cello is the protagonist throughout and weaves a lyrical but anguished and intense line. Arto Noras is as superbly expressive here as he was witty and playful in Chamber music III.
I hope I have given a sense of the expressive range and variety of these eight works. I had already started exploring Sallinen’s symphonies, thanks to the complete set I mentioned, and have been very glad to get to know this series as well. The performances under both Ville Matvejeff and Ralf Gothóni are accomplished and the soloists play with great commitment and style. The recording is clear and unobtrusive, and there is a helpful sleeve-note, in English and Finnish only. We owe a debt to the Finnish Music Foundation which sponsored these recordings.
– MusicWeb International (Stephen Barber) Read less
Works on This Recording
Chamber Music no 2, Op. 41 by Aulis Sallinen
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1976; Finland
Chamber Music no 1, Op. 38 by Aulis Sallinen
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1975; Finland
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