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Erkki MELARTIN (1875-1937)
The Six Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Opus 30/1 (1902) [25.50]
Symphony No. 2 (1904) [28.05]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Opus 40 (1906-07) [34.54]
Symphony No. 4, Opus 80, Summer Symphony (1912) [41.33]
Symphony No. 5, Opus 90, Sinfonia Brevis (1916) [32.46]
Symphony No. 6, Opus 100 (1925) [35.11]
Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonid Grin
Recorded at Tampere Hall, May 1994 (Symphonies 1 and 3); November 1993 (Symphonies 2 and 4); March 1992 (Symphony No. 5); and October 1992
(Symphony No. 6).
rec. 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1999 (Boxed set)
ONDINE CD ODE 931-2 [3 CDs: 60.54+ 69.48 + 68.07]


I remember my first hearing of Erkki Melartin's Symphony No. 5 chiefly because the music was in such lush contrast to the drab cover of that Ondine disc - little more than the composer's name and the words 'Symphonies 5 & 6.' I'm sure I had passed it by several times before I finally borrowed it from the library in the Finnish city where I was living then in spring 1994, half fearful that I'd hear nondescript Finnish modernism.

What I heard was pure delight. I liked it well enough to go looking all these years later to see whether I could buy the Melartin No. 5. I found more than I anticipated: A boxed set from 1999 of all six Melartin symphonies recorded by Leonid Grin and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra … with more winsome cover art this time around.

For the boxed set Ondine has put a painting of Finnish wilderness on the cover, Eero Järnefelt's Maisema Kolilta, A View from Koli. Surely this is more fitting cover art for Melartin, a composer who was also a painter, and whose music, understandably, has sometimes been described in glowing visual terms. (Incidentally, the cover art ought to be significant to Sibelians, since Koli is the fell in eastern Finland that was partly the inspiration, according to Sibelius biographer Erik Tawastjerna, for Sibelius's Symphony No. 4.)

The art also goes a long way toward telling the prospective buyer what's in store, as long as the buyer doesn't expect Sibelius. Instead, picture Mahler/Bruckner on a northern vacation, perhaps borrowing a few tricks from Sibelius. This is music that deserves a wider hearing, and probably didn't get the attention it merited when it first appeared. My first go at the Melartin symphonies will very likely give me the nudge to buy the Melartin Violin Concerto.

The fine essay accompanying these recordings is by Erkki Salmenhaara, a historian of Finnish music. I also found an essay by Osmo Tapio Raihala at the Finnish Music Quarterly Web site helpful. Both these authors probably mention Mahler and Bruckner more often than anyone as influences on Melartin's art. Melartin studied in Vienna and later conducted the first concerts of Mahler's music in the Nordic countries while leading the orchestra in Viborg from 1908 to 1911.

To my mind passages in at least the first five of the Melartin symphonies can be heard as nature music. Salmenhaara uses the word "pastoral" to describe passages in the symphonies 3 and 5; parts of Nos. 1 and 4 are implicitly pastoral because of the folksongs embedded in them; and we know from Melartin's own words that he wrote a part of the No. 2 as a "solitary autumn melody." There's delightful, atmospheric music here that's intended to give us a sense of place and season.

The other common denominator is folk music. When not actually quoting from folk music, as in the No. 1 and No. 4, Melartin is weaving melodies that could have come from folksong. That's the case in No. 3, which contains no folksong material.

I am not absolutely certain, but the boxed set recordings by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Leonid Grin seem to be simply a repackaging of the earlier discs released in the 1990s. At any rate the digital recordings all date from 1992 to 1994. Sound quality is very good throughout and there are glowing performances from a Finnish orchestra perhaps not as familiar to listeners as the ones in Helsinki and Lahti.

Symphony No. 4, Summer Symphony (1912): This was the favorite with concert audiences in Melartin's own day, and perhaps still is the favorite with listeners. A gem-like the second movement, Scherzo (Vivace), tells why. Play this movement (Disc 2, Track 6) if you want to make someone a fan of Melartin. It is an exuberant distillation of at least one aspect of the northern summer, like sunlight made audible. To my mind the third movement adds an element of wistfulness (the northerners' consciousness that winter is coming?) before a soloist and then three female voices together enter the work.

Raihala's essay for Finnish Music Quarterly magazine says the "Summer Hymn" that helps anchor the symphony is actually a melody of Swedish origin, though familiar to all Finns. It helps make this symphony a beautiful product of National Romanticism. If you like the voices in the second movement of Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 3, you'll love the singing in Melartin's No. 4, which seems to me similar in spirit.

This may be one of his most visual works. At least the Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja, in his review of the Melartin Symphony No. 4, focused on the visual qualities of the music: "Seldom has the summer nature, its limpid, delicate landscapes, the hushed piety of the white summer night been described with such delightful and confident strokes of the brush."

Symphony No. 5 (1916): There is writing here as fragile as lace or birch trees. I think I hear Sibelian touches toward the end of the first movement. The second movement has moments of such heartbreaking romanticism that I thought of Rachmaninov. Here, as elsewhere, and despite the fragility of the piece, there is deep, sonorous writing for brass. (I'm not sure if it is simply Melartin's music or if it is superb playing by the brass section of the Tampere Philharmonic, but the brass seems to stand out time and again in these recordings.) The third movement is some of my favorite music from the entire Melartin cycle. It begins with a birdlike solo for flute. There is a sense of intimacy and restraint, as though Melartin is saying something weighty in the very lightest of terms. Perhaps that might explain Melartin's title for the No. 5, 'Sinfonia Brevis.' In truth there's nothing remarkably brief about it. Melartin's Nos. 1 and 2 are shorter works, at about 26 minutes and 28 minutes, respectively, compared to the No. 5's 32:46. However there does seem to be an economy of expression.

Symphony No. 3 (1906/07): Along with No. 5, this is my personal favorite among the six, and another pair of ears backs me up on this. My 9-year-old son has heard me play all of these symphonies repeatedly of late, and on two separate occasions he approached me to ask what piece was playing. Both times it was the Melartin No. 3. Incidentally, Ondine's 1995 release of Grin's recording of the Melartin symphonies 1 and 3 won the Finnish Broadcasting Company's Record of the Year award.

The No. 3 is written in Sibelius's favorite 'Nordic' key, F major but as with all of Melartin, it could scarcely be mistaken for Sibelius. It opens with a tidal sway and surge that, to my mind, suggests the sea. The initial theme is one of those places where Salmenhaara uses the word "pastoral".

It's a cyclical work, knit together by a theme that appears in all four movements. Some of the most interesting writing is in the Scherzo, (Disc 1, Track 7) where Melartin's notes in the score show he has written a 'Chorale of Death' into the piece. Nevertheless, the work does not come off as gloomy. There is bright along with the dark.

Symphony No. 6 (1925): Raihala's article at the Finnish Music Quarterly Web site points out that the Symphony No. 6 was originally called 'Elementtisinfonia,' 'Symphony of the Elements' apparently an allusion to classical notions of earth, water, air and fire. Melartin apparently followed the 20th century fashion of recanting on any hint of pictorialism or program music (one thinks of Albert Roussel ultimately disavowing his announced intent to depict in his Symphony No. 2 the three ages of man: youth, maturity, and old age).

But there is indeed an elemental strength about this music, like seas and continents in opposition. That may stem from the fact that, in Melartin's words, the No. 6 is "tinged with atonality." The symphony is in no well-defined key, and Salmenhaara notes that its tonal center moves progressively from C in the first movement, to C sharp in the second, then to D, and finally to E in the finale. It is the most 20th century modern of Melartin's symphonies and shows he was well aware of what was happening in lands to the south. But it would be beyond Melartin's powers to write music that is unrelentingly grim. The old Melartin of symphonies 1-5 keeps peeking through, like sun from behind clouds, to ease the tension of this work with moments of rare beauty. A particularly pleasing feature is a sort of Oriental theme (Salmenhaara and Raihala both say Japanese) that appears briefly, then vanishes.

Symphony No. 1 (1902): This work hasn't seized me in the way that the others have, but it's a good, self-assured effort from a young composer in a time and place where almost none of his countrymen are writing symphonies. Salmenhaara notes that this is only the fourth symphony ever written in Finland, the others being one by E. Mielck and the first two by Sibelius. As with Sibelius Nos. 1 and 2, there are Tchaikovskian elements in the Melartin No. 1. Salmenhaara believes he sees also some influence of the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 (which Melartin certainly would have known) in the use of timpani in the Scherzo. Raihala points out that the pleasing Scherzo (Disc 1, Track 3) was popular as a concert piece in its day, perhaps because it alludes to a Finnish folksong, 'Ol' kaunis kesailta,' 'It was a fair summer evening.' At the time the symphony was written, any expression of Finnish identity could be construed as furthering the move toward independence from Russia.

Symphony No. 2 (1904): Melartin was a Karelian, from eastern Finland. For me one of the high points of this symphony is the first subject of the finale, which Melartin identified as "sounding in Karelian-national fashion, with a certain marchlike mien." Once again, that would have been a political gesture when this symphony appeared. As with the First, there are stylistic devices that might remind listeners of Tchaikovsky or young Sibelius (before the Symphony No. 3). Fortunately for music scholars, Melartin wrote a piece for a Swedish language music review at the time in which he discussed the work at length, characterizing different passages as a "solitary autumnal melody" (suggesting Sibelius, Salmenhaara thinks), 'a threatening fifths motif,' 'cry-of-despair motif,' 'defiant subject,' 'more hopeful motif,' 'the warlike theme.'

That 'solitary autumn melody' brings me back to Järnefelt's cover art, clearly an autumn scene that shows a touch of sun under clouds. That mix of sun and shade might be a good way to describe the Melartin Symphony No. 3, in particular, and perhaps the Melartin cycle in general. But I wonder if there truly is such a visual quality to Melartin's music, or if I only think so because of Raihala's observation that Melartin was also an amateur painter who even held two solo exhibitions of his works? It would be a fair guess that, perhaps more than most composers, Melartin thought visually as well as in sound. At any rate, the endorsement of Leevi Madetoja is good enough for me. Melartin does what a painter does, but in sound. These are symphonies worth looking into.

Lance Nixon

 

 



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