Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 2 in A,
op. 19 “War Symphony”.
Petri Sakari, cond;
Anu Komsi (sop); Turku PO
ALBA 351 (57:06)
This Alba release represents a milestone in the discography of significant Finnish music of the post-Sibelian early 20th century, completing the label’s cycle of the three symphonies by Aare Merikanto (1893–1958), one of the most crucial
and transformative figures who helped to bring his national music into the Modernist era. A few years ago Alba issued a premiere recording of Merikanto’s First Symphony (ABCD 336) paired with his Third—the first modern recording since the groundbreaking 12-LP Fennica set of 60 years ago. This latter CD has apparently never been reviewed in
but now the project is complete at last.
As the son of a famous composer of mostly vocal music (Oskar Merikanto, 1868–1924), Aare always knew he wanted to be a musical contender. After preliminary studies with Melartin, as a teenager he traveled to Leipzig to learn the fundamentals with the redoubtable Max Reger, then subsequently spent a few unexpected but fertilizing months in Russia as a pupil of Vassilenko, which was to have a determinative effect on his early idiom. It was during this period (1914–1916) that he completed a large-scale First Symphony, a self-consciously epic and sometimes exhausting effort amalgamating all these varied influences into a kind of frenetic Straussian-Sibelian broth. A few years later (1918) he embarked on an even longer three-quarter-hour Second Symphony, which often sounds like an attempt to rewrite the First but in a more cogent and coherent form. Its four movements are filled with soaring and exhilarating ideas clothed in dense orchestration which sometimes recalls a Nordic Bax. The slow movement is especially interesting because of a passage where there is use of huge trombone glissandos unlike anything heard elsewhere before or since. The work is subtitled “War Symphony” simply because of what the world was undergoing during its creation, but its tone emphasizes triumph far more than suffering. Although not a born symphonist, Merikanto helped pave the way for those who were to come such as Marttinen and Aho (Englund was much more oriented towards Russian models). This tempestuous but still essentially tentative Symphony shows a young talent struggling to carve out an idiom for himself, which is exactly what he achieved during his glorious 1920s decade, the innovative peak of his career.
This breakthrough is exemplified by
, a 10-minute setting of an erotic late 19th-century Finnish poem depicting a Greek damsel pining for her Narcissus, who is otherwise preoccupied, as we know from the legend. The musical language which Merikanto created for this work (and many others, including his opera
, the symphonic poems
The Abduction of Kyllikki
as well as the phenomenal quasi-Schoenbergian Nonet and Triple Concerto) is one of incisively Expressionistic ecstasy embodied in sharply chromatic ambivalence unlike anything else in Finnish music. In his later decades Merikanto backed away from these daring accomplishments and adopted a more restrained neoclassical mode with strong nationalistic elements, as shown in the later (1952–53) and more audience-friendly Third Symphony.
It is perfectly clear that every attempt has been made by all participants in this project to present these two radically different aspects of Merikanto in the best possible light. Soprano Anu Kamsi’s vocally deliquescent and technically sure delivery proves she fully deserves her current acclaim, while the Turku Philharmonic (Finland’s oldest orchestra), under its new conductor Petri Sakari, lives up to its venerable reputation. Alba’s sonic and production values have always been first class, and the prominent composer Jouni Kaipainen provides an insightful annotation. No one with even a passing interest in 20th-century Finnish music should overlook this release—or its predecessor.
FANFARE: Paul A. Snook
Works on This Recording
Ekho by Aarre Merikanto
Anu Komsi (Soprano)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Be the first to review this title