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Kokkonen: Cello Concerto, Symphonies No 3 & 4

Release Date: 02/12/2008 
Label:  Ondine   Catalog #: 1098   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Joonas Kokkonen
Performer:  Marko Ylönen
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 2 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

KOKKONEN Symphonies: No. 3; No. 4. Cello Concerto Sakari Oramo, cond; Marko Ylönen (vc); Finnish RSO ONDINE 1098 (62:12)

Ondine, Finland’s premier record company, has done much to promote the music of native Finnish composers, and Joonas Kokkonen (1921–1996) is arguably that country’s most important after Sibelius. A student at the University of Helsinki and later at the Sibelius Academy, Kokkonen eventually joined the faculty of the latter institution where he taught composition to, among others, Aulis Read more Sallinen. He was intensely interested in music education and the development of cultural organizations, being appointed successor to Uuno Klami as head of the Finnish Academy. His works list is not exceptionally large (his creative impulse slowed following the death of his wife and his subsequent descent into alcohol abuse), but it spans most of the major genres of composition, including an opera, The Last Temptations , that proved very successful and that was staged at the Met in 1983.

The works on this release fall into what has been described as Kokkonen’s third, final, and longest creative period, characterized by a kind of “neo-Romantic style of free tonality.” Two preceding, shorter periods found the composer experimenting with neo-Cassical and then 12-tone techniques. Most of that is behind him in the 1969 Cello Concerto, a large free-ranging work in five movements that structurally resembles to some extent Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto of exactly a decade earlier. Both concertos contain as a designated movement an extended solo cadenza. Stylistically too, Kokkonen’s opus owes some small debt to the Russian composer. It’s a mid-20th-century work employing techniques of the above-mentioned free tonality, piquant harmonies, colorful orchestration, and an expressive solo part that provides a satisfying balance between flights of lyricism and virtuosic display. All of this is wrapped in a tasty taco shell that is toothsome and easily digested. There is just enough glancing back to, and near quotations of, the familiar—such as the consonant triadic brass peroration at the end of the Adagio and the paraphrasing of Bach’s G-Major Suite for solo cello in the Cadenza movement—to afford listeners a sense of aural orientation in what might otherwise strike some as a bit aimless.

This is Kokkonen’s only concerto for any instrument, and a quite arresting one it is. Cellist Marko Ylönen, whom I’ve not previously encountered, draws from his instrument a deep, plenteous, and resonant tone, and sails through the technically daunting passages with easy aplomb. At the concerto’s very first rehearsal, Kokkonen, concerned that the cello would not be able to cut through the dense scoring, thinned the orchestration drastically. Afterwards, he was quoted as saying, “In all other respects I am not qualified to estimate the qualities of this work, but of one thing I am certain: the cello will always be heard.” He was right.

Of Kokkonen’s 1967 Symphony No. 3 I am less enamored. I sense this is a transitional work between his earlier and later periods. Though the piece won a coveted award from the Nordic Music Council, it is not a score as easily assimilated as either the later Cello Concerto or Fourth Symphony. Heavy on percussion, tone-clusters, eerie glissandos, and other coloristic effects, the Third Symphony unfolds in four quite short movements within a structure that resembles a symphony turned inside out—two outer slow movements framing two brief scherzo-like inner movements—with the weight and crux of the matter shifted to the concluding Adagio.

Note writer Pekka Hako calls Kokkonen’s 1971 Fourth Symphony “the most immediately accessible,” a conclusion with which I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I’d go a step further to say that the score is unapologetically cinematic and melodramatic in a way that reminded me, of all things, of Richard Rodger’s and Robert Russell Bennett’s film score to NBC’s 1952 documentary series, Victory at Sea . Kokkonen, whether or not he was familiar with this production, nonetheless fashioned a work of symphonic dimensions that similarly gets the adrenalin rushing and the tears flowing. It’s a masterful piece of writing which, along with the Cello Concerto, makes this a must-have disc.

There is, by the way, a two-disc set on the Finlandia label that includes a 1975 recording of the Cello Concerto with cellist Arto Noras and Paul Freeman conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. Also contained in that collection of Kokkonen’s works is a 1968 recording of the Third Symphony with Paavo Berglund leading the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Though I’m not familiar with this release, it appears to be currently available only as an import item, and in terms of performance and recorded sound, I can’t imagine it bettering the new Ondine CD.

A bit more competition, not surprisingly, exists for the very appealing Fourth Symphony. Once again, Paavo Berglund leads a 1994 performance with the Finnish RSO; and a 1989 recording on BIS (with which I am familiar) with Osmo Vänskä and Lahti Symphony Orchestra of the symphony also includes a fine reading of the Cello Concerto with Torleif Thedéen. Happily, these works have been well served on disc, for the attention they have received is highly deserved. The current Ondine release is strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Cello by Joonas Kokkonen
Performer:  Marko Ylönen (Cello)
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1969; Finland 
Length: 22 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Symphony no 3 by Joonas Kokkonen
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1967; Finland 
Length: 17 Minutes 45 Secs. 
Symphony no 4 by Joonas Kokkonen
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1971; Finland 
Length: 21 Minutes 50 Secs. 

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