This is the second volume of orchestrations, arrangements
and one might say meditations on Hymn tunes found in Finland’s standard
version of our ‘Ancient and Modern’. The booklet notes are almost entirely
in Finnish but one brief essay has been translated into English and
we are told that Volume
One was such a popular success that Bis decided to have a second
attempt. The words of the hymns are given but not translated.
I suspect that this disc will be ten times more successful
in Finland at which market it is obviously aimed, than elsewhere (except
perhaps among ex-pat communities), as so few of these melodies will
be known. A number of them are quite ancient although there is much
to interest the inquisitive listener. This unfamiliarity proves both
an advantage and a disadvantage. The latter because it is quite difficult
to see just how clever the composer has been, and the former because
I found that it is possible to approach these pieces, none of which
lasts for more than six minutes, as (very) miniature tone poems. Some
are so atmospheric and magically orchestrated that the original melody
is almost irrelevant anyway.
It’s true to say that in much of this mostly diatonic
music the spirit of Sibelius hovers benignly. It is also true that some
orchestrations give the impression of a kind of Finnish ‘Songs of Praise’
without the bellicose congregations. But there are other pieces, which
strike an individual voice. Let me give some examples.
Only one of the arrangers is known to me that is the
prolific symphonist Kalevi Aho and the biographies are only given in
Finnish. Some have distinctly individual voices; many sound rather similar.
Aho’s orchestration is quite special and Harri Ahmas is an interesting
I had no idea what could be done with an ancient hymn
tune. Some examples could include Ahmas’s arrangement of ‘Lobe den Herren’
a 17th Century tune known in Britain as ‘Praise to the Lord,
the almighty’. This includes quite a number of interesting percussion
sounds and syncopated brass, a little in the style of the aforesaid
‘Songs of Praise’ disarrangements. The CD ends with a 20th
Century Finnish Hymn tune, words translated as ‘When I see thy saviour’
arranged by the youngest represented composer Jaakko Kuusisto. This
reminds me of the middle movement of Sibelius’ Karelia Suite with
its solemn tread. Jaakko’s music does not appear though to be that different
from that of his father, Ilkka. Both are very much wedded to tradition.
Ilkka takes a wondrous folk hymn ‘Spread your wings’ and works it with
piccolo and tambourine at the start and then returns to it wittily at
Kari Tikka takes another approach. Five of his arrangements
follow on from each other, their placement and ordering creates a connected,
symphonic suite. There is also no gap between some of the movements,
perhaps just a sting tremolando chord holds through (again very Sibelius).
The tempi and mood contrast nicely. It was quite fascinating to discover
a brooding atmospheric landscape created when a hymn tune seems so plain
in its original form. Particularly moving is Harri Ahmas’s version of
‘Thank God and the Lamb’ with distant bells over a misty landscape.
So, this is an intriguing disc. Beautifully recorded
as ever with Bis, and obviously a labour of love for everyone concerned
especially for Osmo Vänskä who is himself represented on the
disc as arranger. How much it will make an impression outside Finland
or Scandinavia I’m not so sure.