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Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928)
Complete Works for Male Choir
CD 1
Lauluja (The Singer)  (1956) [2:30]
Syksy virran suussa (Autumn at the Rivermouth) (1965/1995) [2:49]
Two Preludes of T.S. Eliot (1956/1967)*
I. Winter Evening [2:08]
II. The Morning Comes [0:44]
Kaksi psalmia (Two Psalms) for male choir (1968/1971)
I. 23 [2:41]
II. 130 [2:34]
Ave Maria (1957)* [3:24]
Joulun virsi (Christmas Hymn) for male choir  (1953) [1:32]
Elämän kirja (A Book of Life) (1972)
I. Kindheit (Childhood)* [3:53]
II. Ma bohème (My Bohemian Life)* [2:32]
III. L'Amoureuse (One in love)* [1:10]
IV. Vanitas! Vanitatum vanitas [3:24]
V. Hope is the Thing With Feathers* [1:13]
VI. Are You Ready?* [1:34]
VII. Huojuva keula (The Swaying Prow) [1:03]
VIII. Le Bain (Swimming) [1:36]
IX. Me emme kuole koskaan (We Shall Never Die) [2:16]
X. Så var det (So it was)* [1:27]
XI. Song of Myself† [7:15]
CD 2
Neljä laulua Aleksis Kiven runoihin (Four Songs to Poems by Aleksis Kivi) (1998/2005)
I. Ikävyys (Melancholy) [4:01]
II. Olven kunnia (The Glory of Beer) [1:30]
III. Oravan laulu (The Squirrel) [3:33]
IV. Sydämeni laulu (Song of My Heart) [3:33]
Legenda (Legend) (1985)* [3:06]
Lehdet lehtiä (Leaves are Leaves) (1985)† [4:30]
Neljä serenadia (Four Serenades) (1978)
I. Serenade für meine Frau (Serenade to My Wife)* [1:38]
II. La mort des pauvres (Serenade to Death) [2:06]
III. Serenadien serenadi (Serenade of Serenades)* [1:26]
IV. Serenadi oluelle (Serenade to Beer) [2:16]
Hammarskjöld-fragment (Hammarskjöld Fragment) (1975)* [5:51]
Isontalon Antti ja Rannanjärvi (Antti Isotalo and Rannanjärvi) (1973)† [3:48]
Hallin Janne (Janne of Halli) (1973)* [1:51]
Kettu ja sairas kukko (The Fox and the Sick Cockerel) (1975)* [1:53]
Neljä romanssia oopperasta Rasputin (Four Romances from the Opera Rasputin) (2003/2006)
I. Lävitse kimmeltävän yön (Through the Glimmering Night) [2:21]
II. Kaukana on minun maani (Far Away Lies My Homeland) [3:07]
III. Troikka kiitää (The Troika Speeds) [1:46]
IV. Kuu kelmeä vain virtaan kuvastuu (Moonlight is Pale Upon the River) [2:20]
YL Male Voice Choir/Matti Hyökki
*Talla Vocal Ensemble/Pasi Hyökki
† Tuomas Katajala (tenor)
rec. 28-29 April, 20-21 October 2007 (YL), 24-25 March 2007 (Talla), Järvenpää Hall, Järvenpää, Finland. Song texts and translations provided
ONDINE ODE 1125-2D [47:07 + 52:01]
Experience Classicsonline

‘Accessibility’ is a label that can so easily be misconstrued, especially in the world of contemporary classical music, yet there’s no other way to describe this a cappella collection from Ondine. And it’s as up-to-date as it gets, for although Rautavaara came to prominence as long ago as 1954 some of these settings were written as recently as 2006. Rautavaara has also been a mentor to other Finnish composers, Kalevi Aho among them, and must surely be one of Finland’s best-known composers since Sibelius.
 
Listening to these discs I was instantly struck by the distinctive Nordic singing style, so well illustrated by the Norwegian ensembles in Immortal Nystedt – see review – which made my list of picks for 2007. There is an appealing earthiness and warmth to the Finnish choirs, so it’s very easy to manage both discs in one sitting. Whether one will feel entirely fulfilled afterwards is less certain.
 
Apart from the undoubted talents of these two choirs – the YL group, founded in 1863, is the oldest such choir in Finland – the Ondine engineers deserve praise for this refulgent recording. Not only that, the stereo spread is very believable, with plenty of depth as well, which is ideal for this kind of repertoire. The Talla ensemble may be relative newcomers – they were formed in 1991 – but they bring an equally distinctive flavour to the choral mix, especially in the settings that call for higher voices.
 
Rautavaara is eclectic in his choice of texts – translations of which are supplied in the substantial booklet – including two Preludes by T. S. Eliot. The latter are sung most beautifully by the Talla choir, the higher voices bringing a touch of frost the warming cadences of Winter Evening (tr.3), while in the all-too-brief setting of The Morning Comes (tr. 4) they manage to combine restraint with a real sense of anticipation. Their rendition of Ave Maria (tr. 7) has the same gentle qualities; indeed, this setting, more than any other, reminded me of Nystedt’s Salve Regina, especially as it also retains its devotional character without ever sounding over-reverential.
 
For the most part the older, more experienced YL choir sound rich and velvety, with a dark, Slavonic bass line – just sample their Christmas Hymn (tr.8) – that is most appealing Anyone who has heard the Phoenix and Kansas choirs in Grechaninov’s Passion Week – see review – will recognise this profoundly beautiful sound, one that resonates in the ear and the mind long after it has passed. But as committed and heartfelt as the YL group undoubtedly are, there were times when I longed for a little more unanimity and focus from these singers.
 
The first three songs of A Book of Life (1972) feature the lighter and more agile Talla choir, who sing with character throughout. Meanwhile the YL singers bring real gravitas to Emily Dickinson’s Hope is the Thing With Feathers (tr. 13) and infectious high spirits to Swimming (tr. 16). Disc 1 is rounded off by a sombre So it was from the YL choir (tr. 18) and a show-stealing Song of Myself from the Talla ensemble (tr. 19). This life-affirming, all-embracing Walt Whitman setting is the most memorable item on this disc, whether it be the impassioned unison/divided singing or the lovely high tenor of soloist Tuomas Katajala. The choir’s English is accented but not distractingly so, and they’re always easily understood.
 
Disc 2 begins with Melancholy, the first of four poems by the Finnish author Aleksis Kivi, an atmospheric piece spoilt by a somewhat woolly start and less than perfectly blended singing from the YL choir. Thankfully it’s a temporary lapse and they make amends with some full-blooded – and deep-chested – singing as the cycle progresses. In The Glory of Beer (tr. 2) they are suitably folksy and good natured, modulating to something altogether more tender in The Squirrel (tr. 3). Again, they are less than unanimous at the outset but it seems churlish to complain when they sing with such obvious enthusiasm.
 
Curiously rhe next quartet on this disc – Four Serenades – is split between the two ensembles, the Talla choir starting with the rather colourless Serenade to My Wife (tr. 7). In fact this foursome is rather less vital and varied than we’ve come to expect from Rautavaara. Even Baudelaire’s Serenade to Death (tr. 8) seems a tad lugubrious at times, but at least the counter-tenor Pasi Hyökki – also the Talla’s conductor – and the bass Tuukka Haapaniemi bring some folk-like authenticity to Serenade of Serenades (tr. 9). My misgivings about this quartet are confirmed by the rather heavy handed humour of Serenade to Beer (tr. 10) with its clap-along accompaniment.
 
Thankfully matters improve somewhat in the Talla group’s nimble contribution to the first of two Finnish folk songs. The ringing tones of Tuomas Katajala are particularly apt here, the song building to a lovely sustained climax. The Talla ensemble also bring a welcome lightness to The Fox and the Sick Cockerel (tr. 14), which is just as well since the four romances from Rautavaara’s opera Rasputin are cast in a more serious, Russianate style entirely in keeping with its subject matter. Here at least the rich bass line is exploited to the full, with just the right hint of wistfulness in Far Away Lies My Homeland (tr. 16). This Troika Speeds (tr. 17) is rather more sedentary than, say, Lieutenant Kijé’s, but then the composer’s curiously reticent, slightly ‘grey’, choral writing may have something to do with that.
 
Rautavaara enthusiasts will want this collection as not only is it complete it’s also the only recording of these works in the catalogue. Ondine have done a fine job with this sound, which is never less than full and warm, but it seems to me that the flame of inspiration burns a little low at times. Even the best ensembles can’t disguise the weaker settings and, in any case, both the Talla and YL choirs aren’t in top form throughout.
 
A pleasant hour-and-a-half of music, but as unaccompanied singing goes this is a worthy collection rather than an outstanding one.
 
Dan Morgan
 

 


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