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Finnish Hymns - Volume 2
Hymns set and arranged for Orchestra

arr Olli KORTEKANGAS (b.1955). Early you prepared the way; God who loves the children;
arr Ilkka KUUISTO (b.1933) Come Jesus great giver of grace; The earth is the Lord’s; Come, Jesus, great giver of Grace; Spread you wings O lord
arr Jaako KUUSISTO (b.1974) When I see my saviour
arr Harri AHMAS (b.1957) Help me, O Jesus; Lord, you fill the firmament arr., by Herman Rechberger; O Hampt voll arr Kari TIKKA (b.1946) Blut und Wunden; Thank God for the lamb and the covenant; Lobe den Herren
Spirit of Truth; Marching through the desert; Praise God in the highest;
arr Kalevi AHO O Jesus. Let me return to you
arr Osmo VÄNSKÄ I remember the day
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Recorded at the Church of the Cross, Lahti, Finland, June 2002
BIS CD 1349 [66.22]

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 figure.

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 the end.

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.

Gary Higginson

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