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Cello Concertoa. Symphony No. 6, 'Aphorisms'b.
aJan-Erik Gustafsson (cello); Tampere Philharmonic bChoir and Orchestra/Eri Klas.
Recorded with support from the Performing Music Promotion Centre (ESEK). Producer Seppo Siirala. Engineer Enno Mäemets. Date September 1999.
Ondine ODE951-2 (full price, 56 minutes)
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Einar Englund died in June last year, at the age of 83. He had the satisfaction of knowing that the sessions for this disc - with the last of his symphonies and concertos that had still to be recorded - would be taking place only three months later, though it's a real pity that he didn't live to enjoy these urgent, directly communicative performances.

Englund's Cello Concerto is a quiet masterpiece, worthy of being ranked alongside such similarly unassertive treasures as the Elgar and Miaskovsky. Written in 1954, it was the first concerto he composed, pre-dating even his first contribution for his own instrument, the piano; that followed a year later. Like those earlier English and Russian exemplars, Englund's Cello Concerto treads a fine line of emotional ambivalence: there is an enormous depth of feeling in it, but not a hint of sentimentality - Englund's emotion is dry-eyed and adult. His forebears are immediately audible: the harmonic language owes much to Bartók, and the orchestral textures have more than a hint of Prokofiev. There are also intermittent but obviously unintended thematic reminiscences scattered through the work: a phrase that stalks the first movement sounds just like 'I got rhythm'; and the slow movement begins with a three-note figure that will instantly suggest that we're about to hear an orchestration of Bach's D major Toccata, BWV565. But the steely sense of purpose that underlies the autumnal wistfulness of much of the score is entirely Englund's own: his music always knows where it is going. And it's always transparently honest. The resourcefulness of the cello writing, moreover, is nothing short of astonishing in a non-cellist composer: Englund draws a subtle range of colours from the instrument that I simply hadn't heard before.

Aphorisms, composed in 1984 as the Sixth of Englund's seven symphonies, is a very different animal: a six-movement setting of texts translated into Finnish from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The direct appeal of the Cello Concerto is replaced by a tougher, more overtly granitic approach: the orchestral sound is darker, with declamatory brass and side-drum tattoos adding the march rhythms so characteristic of Englund; the melodic material, too, is more abrupt, often consisting of insistent motives rather than full phrases - to my surprise, I find it reminds me of the Symphony of Psalms. And, in a further surprise from such a natural contrapuntist, Englund's choral writing is predominantly chordal. The third movement, a scherzo for orchestra alone (which, as Jaakko Haapaniemi's excellent essay informs us, the composer initially intended to furnish with a choral line; he never got around to the task), is vintage Englund: bluff, blistering, blazingly exciting - energy on the move.

The performances are first-rate - an important factor in first recordings such as these. Jan-Erik Gustafsson's dedication to the Cello Concerto is plain to hear, and he projects its ambiguous line with passion and assurance. Tampere's new chief conductor, the Estonian Eri Klas, gets excellent results from his musicians, the rhythms crisp and clean, the lines long and firm. The recorded sound is of a similar quality: you can hear everything that's going on. The Tampere Philharmonic Choir is a touch hesitant in its delivery, but since that's the fiercest criticism I can manage, this disc deserves a forthright and enthusiastic recommendation.

Martin Anderson

This review will appear in the September issue of International Record Review


Martin Anderson

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