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Kajanus: Finnish Rhapsody & Sinfonietta / Vanska, Lahti Symphony

Release Date: 05/25/2004 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1223   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Robert Kajanus
Conductor:  Osmo Vänskä
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lahti Symphony OrchestraYL Male Voice Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Robert Kajanus (1856–1933) is likely to be known primarily as a conductor rather than as a composer. He thus joins a list of other illustrious maestros whose conducting careers eclipsed their creative activities. Wilhelm Furtwängler, Jean Martinon, Paul Kletzki, Antal Dorati, and currently Esa-Pekka Salonen are just a few of the names that come to mind. Kajanus is recognized today chiefly as one of the early champions of Sibelius, and his recordings of most of Sibelius’s symphonies, though a bit hard to come by, can still be had. Yet in his day, Kajanus was a moving force behind Finland’s musical scene. He studied at the Helsinki Conservatory, then with Hans Richter in Leipzig, a German grounding being practically obligatory at the Read more time. Upon returning to Finland in 1882, he founded the Helsinki Philharmonic Society, the first permanent orchestra in the country, and one he would lead for the next 50 years. Concurrently, he held the post of director of music at Helsinki University for 29 years, having a profound effect on music education in Finland. He was considered Finland’s most important pre-Sibelius composer. That said, do not expect anything in these scores that remotely resembles Sibelius or even hints in that direction. These are full-blown Romantic outpourings. More specifically, they are full-blown German Romantic outpourings, and they are gorgeous. For me, this is a major discovery, Want List material. If you know and love Liszt’s symphonic tone poems (Les Préludes, Tasso, Mazeppa), and Wagner, this is for you. Given that Kajanus studied under Richter, the influences of both Liszt and Wagner (especially the latter’s Ring cycle) are evident as well as unsurprising.

According to Andrew Barnett, who wrote the very informative booklet note, “Kajanus’s interest in Finnish subjects and folk music shows up as early as the Finnish Rhapsody of 1881 in the form of a folk tune that appears in the middle of the piece,” but the material is used in much the same way as other composers of the period used sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, folk-derived and ethnic elements. In other words, there is nothing that sounds Finnish about this music in the way that Sibelius sounds Finnish. The same can be said for Kullervo’s Funeral March, which, though based on the same Kalevala legend that Sibelius would draw upon, has more in common with the funeral music from Götterdämmerung. The B-Flat Sinfonietta is a four-movement symphony in all but name; yet, it has a lyrical serenade quality about it that makes it a close relative to some of the familiar Scandinavian serenades by composers such as Sinding, Stenhammer, and Wirén. Aino is the only item on the disc for which I was able to find another recording. Composed originally in 1885, then revised in 1916, it is based on an anonymous poem referencing material in the Kalevala. The male chorus, here prepared under the direction of Matti Hyökki, plays a minor role, participating only in the final two-and-half minutes of the score. That fact, and the way in which Kajanus uses the male voices, reminded me inevitably of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, but the character of the music that leads up to the choral section is strongly reminiscent of Wagner.

Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony are magnificent. This is a stunning release. More Kajanus, please!

--Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

At last, Robert Kajanus the composer gets a major release to himself, thanks to BIS. While Kajanus is principally known as a conductor, particularly of the works of Sibelius, this release is quite timely, as those Sibelius recordings don't hold up terribly well--and if the name of Kajanus is to survive as more than a footnote in the history books, it may well be as a composer first and foremost. Certainly his music doesn't compare in originality or vision to that of his illustrious compatriot, but on the other hand it's great fun--good quality Romantic nationalist stuff, with the Finnish Rhapsody No. 1 and the tone poem Aino (Kajanus' best-known piece) refreshingly "Nordic" in sound and instantly appealing.

Of the two more abstract works, the Sinfonietta dates from 1915, exactly the same period as the premiere of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony in its original version, and comparison between the two certainly would be embarrassing to Kajanus, even if the piece offers plenty of charm in its own, reserved sort of way (think along the lines of Stenhammar and you'll get the picture). The real treat here is Kullervo's Funeral March (1880), in which Beethoven's Eroica meets Wagner's Siegfried--and the music's very derivativeness constitutes much of its appeal. Kajanus adds some very un-Wagnerian (let alone Beethovenian) percussion from bass drum and tam-tam for originality's sake, but otherwise it's simply delightful to hear him wanting so desperately to sound just like his beloved models, but trying so hard, always at the last moment, not to do just that.

The performances are just about perfect, as we might expect from the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. Directly appealing and full of fine playing from winds and strings, the interpretations give Kajanus' music a welcome opportunity to make the best possible impression. Also par for the course, BIS' sonics meet the highest standards of the house, with particularly hair-raising climaxes in the Funeral March. This release may represent something of a musical backwater, but its importance in documenting the history of Finnish music isn't in question. Given the ever-increasing impact and significance of the tradition that Kajanus was so instrumental in creating, his music's relevance certainly extends well beyond the merely local. A gem!
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

Finnish Rhapsody no 1 in D minor, Op. 5 by Robert Kajanus
Conductor:  Osmo Vänskä
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1881; Leipzig, Germany 
The Death of Kullervo, Op. 3 by Robert Kajanus
Conductor:  Osmo Vänskä
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1880; Leipzig, Germany 
Sinfonietta in B flat major, Op. 16 by Robert Kajanus
Conductor:  Osmo Vänskä
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915; Helsinki, Finland 
Aino by Robert Kajanus
Conductor:  Osmo Vänskä
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lahti Symphony Orchestra,  YL Male Voice Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: Helsinki, Finland 
Notes: Version: 1916
Composition written: Helsinki, Finland (1885).
Composition revised: Helsinki, Finland (Circa 1916). 

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