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Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928)
The Eight Symphonies
CD 1 [49:04]
Symphony No. 1 (1956/1988/2003) [27:31]
Symphony No. 2 (1957/1984) [21:21]
CD 2 [49:09]
Symphony No. 3 (1961) [32:22]
Symphony No. 4 Arabescata (1962) [16:35]
CD 3 [73:43]
Symphony No. 5 (1986) [31:36]
Symphony No. 6 Vincentiana (1992) [41:56]
CD 4 [67:10]
Symphony No. 7 Angel of Light (1994) [37:53]
Symphony No. 8 The Journey (1999) [29:07]
National Orchestra of Belgium/Mikko Franck (1); Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Max Pommer (2–5); Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Max Pommer (6); Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam (7, 8)
rec. Brussels, Leipzig, Helsinki, 1990-2005. DDD
ONDINE ODE1145-2Q [4 CDs: 49:04 + 49:09 + 73:43 + 67:10]


Experience Classicsonline

The first piece of Rautavaara I heard was a broadcast – in fact the first UK broadcast – of Cantus Arcticus. I was captivated. However encountering distant or distorted tapes of Sarbu’s radio relay of the Violin Concerto and a Berglund-conducted Third Symphony had my enthusiasm cooling. When I saw this limited edition boxed set being issued by the label that has done more for Rautavaara than any other it was time to renew acquaintance.

It comes as less of a surprise that the First Symphony is so redolent of 1940s and 1950s Americana when one realises that it was written while Rautavaara was studying in the USA under a Koussevitsky scholarship. The work has a springy sense of renewal and tension that I associate with Schuman and Harris. Mix this with the high-flown romantic manner of William Alwyn's First Symphony and you know what to expect. I say this even if the genial and slightly acid-bright finale looks towards Shostakovich.

The Second Symphony is heard here in a version revised by the composer in 1984. A short symphony, it’s still longer than the 16:35 of the Fourth. It is a work cast over with foreboding, angular and gawky, awkward and splendid, angry and heaving with noisy protest. It has some echoes of 1950s Stravinsky along the way.

The Third Symphony is from 1961 and like its successor is dodecaphonic. It operates as a very inventive commentary and cross-fertilisation with the Bruckner symphonies - especially the Fourth. Laced with birdsong and tension this is music that hums with the current of invention. Though you may in general be allergic this is a work of one of one of dodecaphony’s most lucid and undogmatic exponents. The emergence of the horn-call - which returns for the finale - from a tensely rippling mystery at the very start is unmistakable. Birdsong and ebullience are part of the weave which even approaches the jocular in the finale.

The Fourth Symphony is more obliquely expressed and less like Cantus Arcticus. It is a work blasted and blasting with winding dissonance and the mannered flurries and eddies of the early 1960s mainstream. It recalls the Richard Rodney Bennett Third Symphony, once to be heard on a Koch International CD. The work’s emergence was labyrinthine. The original Fourth Symphony was written in 1964 but even after rewriting it in 1968 the composer was unhappy. Discarding it altogether, he then dubbed a work previously called Arabescata from 1962, yet not a symphony, as his Fourth Symphony. And this is what we hear. The compact notes by Kimmo Korhonen claim it as the only Finnish serialist symphony. It is most lucidly recorded.

The first four symphonies by Rautavaara were written in fairly quick succession in the bridge across the 1950s into the 1960s. The last of that four had proved a hard passage of arms. The composer left the form alone for two decades, resuming with the Fifth Symphony in 1986. This is a very different single-movement work of 31 minutes duration. It has a slow evolutionary gait and possesses a closer engagement with the lyrical. A dazzle of birdsong is in there just like the slow impressive unfold of Cantus Arcticus. Its lustrous glowing purity and sturdy confident progress is deeply impressive. It perhaps recalls Messiaen in its slowly disintegrating magnificent explosions of sound. In this Rautavaara shares a sound-world with his lesser known adopted Finnish contemporary Friedrick Bruk. Something very similar can be heard in Bruk’s indelibly impressive Pohjolan Legends Symphony.

The Sixth Symphony Vincentiana is in four movements: I. Starry Night [19:29]; II. The Crows [6:15]; III. Saint-Rémy [7:50]; IV. Apotheosis [8:22]. This work is unique for Rautavaara in being derived from his opera Vincent (1987). The Symphony itself is from 1992. Tapiola-like gales ply the northern wastes and mass stridulation of silvery insects shakes the rafters. The work's phantasmagoric effect is intensified by the discreet use of synthesiser. This is most adeptly and naturally resolved into the sound of the orchestra. The ‘look and feel’ of this work suggests the science fiction landscapes of the novels of C.S. Lewis - a literary reference last occurring to me when listening to Silvestrov's Fifth Symphony. After the first two movements - in which the delightful stream of invention is buttressed by synthesiser - the smiling gleam of Sibelian woodwind characterises the Saint-Rémy movement. As it progresses we return to the silvery shimmer of the earlier movements. The final apotheosis is simply glorious - almost Debussian in its steadily unwinding melodic confidence and summery ease - grand and endlessly rewarding. This great cavalcade of a symphony delights in avian voices and a perfect poise balanced between the numinous Messiaen and the delicate Ravel.

The Seventh Symphony is candidly lyrical. Its fabric and progress is yet more naturally flowing than the Sixth. Its almost Scriabin-like ecstasy recalls the orchestral writing of David Mathews reflected in the recent Chandos CD – not to be missed - of The Music of Dawn. The splintery second movement scherzo, with its passing refracted echoes of Shostakovich, seems an interloper in this company. The third movement partakes of the same angelic pristine air as the outer movements of Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra yet has about it more invention. A lot is going on amid all this serenity. The Tallis-like contemplation is mixed with avian effervescence in the finale. One can also draw parallels here with the otherworldliness of Hovhaness and with the benediction of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony.

The Eighth Symphony was commissioned by the Philadelphia. Again it is in four movements. Alongside the sense of a continental river flow we hear a slightly dissonant harmonic tang. The second movement reminds me of the First Symphony in its connection with the sound of the American symphonies of the 1950s. The third movement Tranquillo has the pleasingly bubbling mystery of the first movement of the Third Symphony yet it is not at all dissonant. The imagery of a great river returns for the finale blended with a sort of Slavonic chant and a Hovhaness-like gravity of expression. This wonderful lambent writing has towering grandeur.

These recordings were produced in collaboration with the composer between 1990 and 2005. They have been previously released by Ondine but with different couplings.

With some 30 Rautavaara entries in the Ondine catalogue the composer has been done considerable justice by this gifted label. He must survey it with great pleasure - he certainly deserves to. This set provides a sure route to appreciate one of the grand voices of the last century. He speaks with eloquence and with the engaged rasp and embrace of originality. The music is lambent and Rautavaara’s creative journey leads from dissonance to lyrical awe.

Rob Barnett


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