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Einar ENGLUND (1916-1999)
Symphony No. 2, The Blackbird (1948) [Allegro moderato, 11.57 +Andante molto sostenuto, 11.00 +Finale (Allegro deciso), 7.12] [30.09]
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1955) [Moderato, 9.43 +Larghissimo, 6.31 +Allegro ma non troppo, 6.13] [20.27]
Symphony No. 4, Nostalgic (1976) [Prelude, 6.17 +Tempus fugit, 4.34 +Nostalgia, 6.46 +Intermezzo - Epilogue, 5.51] [23.28]
Niklas Sivelov (piano) (Piano Concerto No. 1)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Jorma Panula.
Recorded at Turku Concert Hall, Finland, Aug. 29-31, Sept. 2-3, and Nov. 28, 1996.
NAXOS CD 8.553758 [74.04]


Einar Englund is one of those post-Sibelian Finnish composers I find interesting, but not interesting enough to make me spring for a full-priced CD. Enter Naxos. The low-budget Naxos release of Englund's Symphony No. 2, "Blackbird," paired with the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Symphony No. 4, "Nostalgic", costs less than half what you'd pay for these works on a full-priced CD.

An added bonus: the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra is led by the deft hand of Jorma Panula on these recordings, who also conducted the premiere of the No. 4 when it first appeared in 1976. Presumably this is music he knows very well.

Symphony No. 2: I first heard the "Blackbird" Symphony on a borrowed Ondine recording that at once captivated me. What is unforgettable about this music is the questioning voice of the flute that haunts this symphony from the beginning of the first movement, Allegro moderato.

One can't help but think the blackbird motif has a good deal to do with the World War II, since this symphony was written in 1948. Englund's Symphony No. 1, 'War,' is from the previous year, but I wonder if the No. 2 is not simply another way of dealing with war through the questioning voice of nature.

As the symphony unfolds, the other wind instruments pick up some of the burden of the flute and the flute begins to strut at the edge of our hearing like a blackbird on a reed, or perhaps a schoolboy whistling - but a schoolboy of 1948, who has seen or heard terrible things.

It's interesting how Englund manages to weigh down the usually sprightly voice of the flute with such a mournful weight of questioning. (I think of the oboe as more ideally suited to this sort of quizzical, pondering work, as in Ralph Vaughan Williams' wonderful Oboe Concerto.)

The notes by Ralf Hermans say that music critic Heikki Aaltoila summed up the "Blackbird" Symphony as "a sarcastic statement by a rebellious soul on the brutality of Man and our distorted civilisation, compared with the purity of Nature." That seems exactly right.

Piano Concerto No. 1: The touchstones in hearing Englund's music, for listeners who haven't heard it before, are Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Bartók. The Bartók influence is strong in this piano concerto, played here by soloist Niklas Sivelov. Not only does it have a Bartók feel to it, it has a nice tip of the hat to folklore that Bartók would appreciate: Hermans says its themes are derived from the "yoik," a vocal technique of the Sami people of Lapland. (Englund apparently drew on the same inspiration in writing the music for a film called "The White Reindeer.")

Symphony No. 4, "Nostalgic." This symphony is from 1976, when Englund was 60 years old. As the name suggests, it's the work of a composer who is beginning to wrestle with the ideas of time, memory, and perhaps mortality. Hermans notes that Englund was moved to write a symphony "to the memory of a great composer" after Stravinsky and Shostakovich died in the 1970s. This four-movement work is contains two wonderfully apt center movements, but I find myself wondering how well the Prelude and the Epilogue knit the whole thing together.

For me, it is the two center movements that make this symphony well worth the hearing. The second movement is marked "Tempus fugit," and does indeed convey - in a hectic 4:34 - the sense of moments fleeing away, irrevocably. Englund, a Swedish-speaking Finn, was apparently remembering childhood days on the Baltic island of Gotland in passages of this symphony. Nevertheless, the geography of this work seems more internal - it is not about an island in the Baltic Sea so much as it is about time lost, and remembering.

The third movement, "Nostalgia," is where Englund writes his most heartbreakingly beautiful music of this work. It contains a reference to Sibelius' Tapiola. Englund apparently had met Sibelius and spent at least a brief time with him at Ainola. The grim last movement apparently carries out the composer's intent. Englund wrote that the music subsides, "with nostalgia and melancholy, into a silence black as night."

Nevertheless, there is lovely music in this symphony worth the hearing before the dark end.

Lance Nixon


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