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Erkki SALMENHAARA (1941-2002)
Suomi-Finland (1966) [20:29]
La fille en Mini-jupe (1967) [17:47]
Adagietto for Orchestra (1981) [6:35]
Le Bateau Ivre (1965/66) [24:18]
Tampere Philarmonic Orchestra/Eri Klas
rec. Tampere Hall, January 2003. DDD
ONDINE ODE 1031-2 [69:40]
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For a composer of his importance Erkki Salmenhaara has not been well treated by record companies.

This disc represents an opportunity to become acquainted with four of his most important and influential orchestral works, including the Adagietto, generally considered one of his masterpieces. Salmenhaara started as a typical sixties radical, but by the age of twenty-five had begun to embrace a neo-romantic style which combined certain then up-to-date procedures with a harmonic system based on triads; a controversial, almost scandalous move in 1966. He also has a penchant for injecting quotes from other composers and using them as part of his basic material. In addition there are stylistic obeisances to Mahler and Sibelius, one of his most charming traits.

Of the four works recorded here, three are from the composer’s mid-to-late twenties when he was making the transition from experimentation and “happenings” to the first stage of his neo-romanticism. Many people claim Salmenhaara as a Finnish minimalist, but he himself correctly rejected this idea. 

The first work Suomi-Finland is described by the composer as a “non-symphonic poem”, a description that could apply to much Nordic music. At first it sounds like a mélange of his favorite Mahler and Sibelius, with another Sibelius acolyte, Howard Hanson, thrown in. The basic material, not really a motif, but a succession of chords, underlies everything that happens but is used in a way that is truly original and avoids the impersonality frequently found in composers like Bentzon and Koppel. The middle section of the piece is more truly Sibelian and a little less original, but still very interesting. The last section offers a good if not perfect summary of what has gone before, and is impressive for a composer of only 25.

If the spirits of Mahler and Sibelius hang over Suomi-Finland, La Fille en Mini-jupe actually quotes Debussy and Beethoven, not only musically, but of course in its title. The work has an extended orchestral part for piano that not only plays and elaborates on Debussy and Beethoven’s pieces but reminds us of them even when playing original Salmenhaara. Besides La Fille aux cheveux de Lin, the opening of the Waldstein sonata and the Ode to Joy theme from the Ninth Symphony form part of the structure. The work is harmonically more astringent than Suomi-Finland and the harmony frequently sounds similar to that of Malcolm Arnold. An ominous background is provided to the themes of Debussy and Beethoven, sometimes coming to the fore and sometimes combining with the pre-existing material in fascinating ways. The final elaboration of the Debussy theme is quite moving, although a little overlong. 

We are not finished with Suomi-Finland. Some fifteen years after the work’s completion, the composer took a fragment of one “theme” and used it as the basis for his Adagietto (1981). The work begins with shifting chords and is taken through many moods, most of them coming as a surprise to the listener. Emotionally this is one of the composer’s most effective works. In the fifteen years since Suomi-Finland Salmenhaara had come into his own in terms of harmony and structure. His always-present developmental ability had greatly matured and he had also gained the ability to express himself concisely. All in all, a highpoint in the composer’s output. 

In Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) we have the very first of the works marking Salmenhaara’s return to tonality. But where the other works on this disc were written for the concert hall, Le Bateau Ivre was created to accompany a television presentation of Rimbaud’s text against a changing background of visual effects. The composer is still using Ligeti’s field technique, but the fields consist of superimposed triads and the music has a definite sense of destination that was lacking in many works of that time. It must have provided a fascinating background for the poem. The work builds in intensity through a series of semi-crescendos around a repeated cello figure. About two-thirds of the way through it becomes more fragmented with much work for the strings. Eventually the crescendos and cello figuration return to bring back the atmosphere of the beginning. A very well-thought-out work even if not meant originally for the concert hall.

The Tampere Philahamonic recently celebrated their seventy-fifth birthday and have been building a reputation as one of finest Nordic orchestras. Their playing here is very appropriate for Salmenhaara, not just from the viewpoint of nationality, but because they and their laureate conductor Eri Klas value clarity and fineness of timbre above all other considerations. They are also attentive to the subtle differentiations of mood inherent in all these works.

The Tampere Philharmonic has long recorded for Ondine and the value of this connection is demonstrated by a clarity of sound that matches that of the orchestral playing. It is to be hoped that this will not be the last Salmenhaara recording from these performers.

William Kreindler 


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