The kantele is a traditional Finnish folk instrument, or rather, a group
of instruments, of the same type as the psaltery and popular in various forms
in north and eastern Europe and in western Russia. Many aspects, from the
shape of the body and tuning, to the playing position and the number of strings
can vary, in much the same way the guitar varies from the 4-string bass to
the 12-string instrument. Featured on this album are 5, 9 and 36-stringed
kanteles (instruments with as many as 46 strings with a four octave range
exist), plus a jouhikko, which is a form of bowed lyre.
The musicians are father and daughter Professor Martti Pokela and Eeva-Leena
Sariola, both of whom teach at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. The Professor
has made it his life work to preserve the folk music of Finland, while Sariola
lectures on folk music internationally, and is also a classical musician.
The trio is completed by Matti Kontio, also of the Sibelius Academy. Pokela
composed six of the tunes, Kontio wrote two, a further piece is a joint
composition, and the remaining eight are arrangements of traditional tunes.
The 17 selections together demonstrate both the great skill of the players
and the diversity of the kantale: which can be a melodic lead instrument,
a rhythm instrument, and is capable of the most unusual and atmospheric harmonic
and other tonal effects, such that this really is a most diverse programme.
Although the titles are given in Finnish, with English translation in brackets,
for convenience I will just refer to the English titles.
This is folk music, so dances abound, particularly polkas and waltzes. The
silvery tones of the kantele - somewhere between a steel-strung 12-string
guitar, a zither and a harp - gives such music an enchanting, fairytale-like
quality, almost akin to the most sophisticated and complex musical box in
the world. These facets are immediately noticeable on the opening Dance
of the Swan (Trad.) and the darkly glittering The Swing (Pokela).
Viula Polka (Pokela) has a sprightly, innocent playful spirit and
offers some dazzling interplay between three 36-string instruments and a
5-string kantele. The Dregs of a 100 Years (Trad.) introduces a pair
of jouhikko to a 36-string instrument and a kantele with 5 copper strings.
The piece itself not only sounds unlike anything preceding it, but seems
to have more in common with a gradually accelerating Jewish dance.
Waltz of a Foreign Land (Kontio) is a lovely melancholy tune, while
November (Pokela) has a rare sad beauty which is quite enchanting.
In strong contrast The Bell Polka and Little Birds' Dance (Trad.)
are vibrant tunes arranged for three, 5-string kantele. These are wonderful
feasts of harmonics, by which an instrument with only 5 notes is able to
Fighting Polka is different again - an arrangement by all three musicians
of a tune know as "Rythypolkka", normally played only by men, and which has
apparently been known to end in a real fight! There is a tense, aggressive
undercurrent to the staccato dance rhythm, but this is nothing to the threatening
high-pitched effects which punctuate atmospheric central section. Fighting
music indeed. Effects of a similar sort, though of more sombre tone are used
in the closing Hintrek Peltoniemi's Funeral March, a dignified melody
of great popularity in Finland.
This really is a very fine album, and as a music that will be most probably
unfamiliar to most listeners, a refreshing treat. The playing is imaginative
and expressive and the three musicians work together to produce a whole world
of beautifully interwoven sound-colours. The recording presents a richly
defined sound-stage in which each instrument is locked clearly into place.
The only thing one could possibly complain about, and this is far from specific
to this album, but applies to the folk music world in general, is why, almost
a decade after the demise of the LP, are most folk recordings still made
as if to fit on two sides of vinyl? Some traditions aren't worth preserving!
A splendid disc, but there is no reason why there shouldn't be another
half-an-hour of music here. For which, in best Eurovision tradition, I've
decided to deduct Finland 'one point'.
Gary S. Dalkin