As former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson used to say: "Wild stuff!" And fortunately for listeners, it's not only wild but uniformly interesting, often very exciting, and totally worth hearing. Einojuhani Rautavaara's fabulously inventive setting of avant-garde poet James Broughton's True & False Unicorn (a series of poems grouped into three large sections, in which various human and animal characters speak regarding the Unicorn, "the personification of the artist") features an eclectic yet ingenious mix of styles (just as the poems themselves juxtapose different historic/mythical subjects and literary sources). The version we hear on this CD is revised from the original, written in 1971. Here, the composer has provided orchestral interludes between movements, replacing the earlier ones, recorded on electronic tape.
From the very opening, "The Unicorn questions the nature of the chase", we're drawn into a strange other-world not of landscapes but where sound, color, rhythm, texture, and words--evocative, powerful words--rule, perhaps best described by the poet as a "tapestry of voices". In "The Lion", the chorus sings in a steady-moving chorale-like manner against a swirling, chaotic background. Freud even makes an appearance as "Sigmund of Vienna", his comments spoken in dramatic narration (complete with stylized accent) by baritone Jaakko Kortekangas, the orchestral accompaniment a not-so-subtle nod to the Second Viennese school. The first section ends with an appearance by the Unicorn, "contemplating himself", in the work's most sedate and overtly tonal expression.
A jaunty, Bernstein-esque "Young Sagittarius" is followed by "A Virgin, waiting" and a scolding, domineering "Empress of Byzantium", after which we're given an unforgettable taste of the composer's humor. In the hilarious "Queen Victoria", set with all tongue-in-cheek seriousness to the tune of "God save the Queen" (mixed with a couple of other patriotic British tunes), the choir sings "O pretty pony, naughty pet/you pale poetic chap/you stay out late at night too much/without a proper wrap. . .", which is the Queen's vain attempt to entice the Unicorn to the delights and blissful order of Victorian society. After several more vividly portrayed episodes (a faux-Spiritual Big Black Sambo; a goofy His Honor the Mayor; The Unicorn, wounded; another visit by Sigmund and the Lion; a delightfully out-of-control, Tom Fool), the work ends with the Unicorn's final appearance, singing to himself "I am myself my own true and false . . .", the full choir's chorale melody beginning serenely, then growing in intensity against a clamoring, increasingly chaotic orchestral background. It's really impossible to adequately describe in words music that's so stylistically uncategorizable and so unpredictably quirky. What's important is that Rautavaara's conception of these unusual poems may not be easy music, but it keeps you fully engaged from beginning to end, leaving you with enough fanciful images and strange sounds swirling around in your head to last long after the final chord has faded.
The other two works on the CD--for a cappella choir--show further examples of the sophistication and originality of Rautavaara's choral writing. Song of Our Time (1993) sets three Federico Garcia Lorca poems--the first, Fragments of Agony, is a masterful sound-painting, using haunting ostinato figures, low-bass utterances, and wildly shifting harmonies to unforgettably enliven its text. In the Shade of the Willow (1998) is a choral work adapted from songs in the composer's opera Aleksis Kivi. The Finnish Radio Chamber Choir exhibits its world-class stature throughout these difficult works, giving especially characterful presentations of the various personages and mythical animals in the True & False Unicorn and flawlessly conquering the formidable technical demands of the unaccompanied pieces. The sound, from two different Helsinki venues, captures the music's wide range and dynamic impact while allowing us to hear every glorious detail. The composer's own notes provide helpful insight into these compelling, captivating creations. [6/14/2004]
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com