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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Uuno KLAMI (1900-61)
Whirls (Pyörteitä) Act I (1957-58, orch. Kalevi Aho, 1988)
I. Prélude à la Fanfare [2:37]
II. The Flames Awake (Tulien herääminen) [3:15]
III. Dance of the Flames I (Tulien tanssi nro 1) [2:41]
IV. War Dance (Sotatanssi) [3:22]
V. Return of the Flames – Dance of Flames II (Liekkien paluu – Tulien tanssi nro 2) [1:49]
VI. Dance of the Water – Song of the Waves (Veden tanssi – Aaltojen laulu) [7:02]
VII. Return of the Flames – Dance of the Flames III (Liekkien paluu – Tulien tanssi nro 3) [2:50]
VIII. Dance of the Slaves (Orjien tanssi) [6:41]
Violin Concerto, Op.32 (1940-43/1954)* [28:44]
Suomenlinna, alkusoitto, Op.30 (1940/1944) [12:33]
*Jennifer Koh (violin)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskā

rec. 28-29 March 1996 (Whirls), 25-26 March 1996 (concerto), 13 December 1993 (Suomenlinna), Ristinkirkko, Lahti, Finland
BIS-CD-696 [72:59]
Experience Classicsonline

Uuno Klami is one of those more obscure Finnish composers who never quite made it from under Sibelius’s shadow. Fortunately for us some of his orchestral scores have now been recorded, several of them on BIS. Unfortunately Whirls, a ballet based on the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala, only survives in rehearsal scores for Acts I and II, which were rediscovered in 1985. The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho orchestrated these two acts and as Act III was never found wrote music for that as well. When the projected performance of the completed ballet didn’t materialise Aho recast the music he’d composed for the third act as his Symphonic Dances (1988).

Klami was admitted to the Helsinki Conservatory (now the Sibelius Academy) at the tender age of 15, and travelled to Paris in 1924-25 where he was much influenced by Ravel and others. That said, he shared with Sibelius a passionate belief in his national identity, celebrated in his popular Karelian Rhapsody (1927) and later in the overture Suomenlinna.

Given that Aho’s Symphonic Dances offers a thrillingly visceral take on this epic (see Aho survey) some may find his orchestration of Act I a bit restrained by comparison. Admittedly Act III probably has the most dramatic potential but make no mistake Act I has its moments as well. Also, in terms of its sound world Whirls strikes me as surprisingly suave and sophisticated – the French influence, perhaps – with an occasional nod towards Prokofiev in its more insistent moments.

In the ballet Ilmarinen the smith uses his furnace to try and create a magical object known as the Sampo. Aided and abetted by an army of slaves and the power of the four winds he finally achieves his goal in Act III. The prelude and fanfare to the first act steals in quietly, the steady timp strokes and anvil sounds setting the stage before the flames awake in track 2. There is an underlying rhythmic tread here, with orchestral evocations of flickering flames and some atmospheric swoops at 2:40.

In his liner-notes Aho says Klami’s score ‘approaches free atonality’ and it’s that ‘fingerprint’ he strives to preserve here. In any event those familiar with Aho’s works will recognise his economy of style and the ‘hear through’ quality of his orchestral writing. Given this epic tale one would be forgiven for expecting music on a similar scale, but that really isn’t Aho’s way here. He certainly turns up the heat in the first Dance of the Flames but it’s the tautly sprung rhythms and unusual colours that make the most impact at this point.

Appropriately the War Dance opens with a crisp little fanfare for trumpet and snare drum before offering up some striking rhythms and sonorities. Just sample the beautifully articulated solo passage that begins at 1:04. There’s real swagger here and the Lahti percussion – the bass drum in particular – are splendid. The swirling figure that opens the second Fire Dance may be rather more conventional in its scene painting, but the grateful acoustic and astonishing level of instrumental detail make for an aural treat.

The Dance of the Water – Song of the Waves is vaguely Debussian in character – that quiet, burbling figure at the outset, repeated later, is most evocative – and there is a growing tension throughout. Once again the sonorities are very individual, the rhythms more sinewy than anything Debussy would have written. That said there is a wonderful cymbal-capped climax reminiscent of La Mer, before the music fades into enigmatic silence. The latter is something of a trademark in Aho’s works and dramatically it’s just as effective here.

The third Fire Dance is the most animated movement so far, with some commendably crisp, alert playing from the Lahti forces. As always one marvels at the percussion section’s playing and at Vänskā’s ability to shape and build climaxes so convincingly. This music could so easily sound overheated but it never does, even at the imposing start to the Dance of the Slaves. No wild abandon here, but the rhythms do become more insistent and invigorating along the way.

At seven minutes this is one of the act’s longest movements and occasionally, very occasionally, I felt the music outstayed its welcome. It’s still worth hearing, but if it’s sheer drama and spectacle you’re after Aho’s Symphonic Dances is hard to beat. Sonically the latter is very impressive too.

The first version of Klami’s Violin Concerto dates from 1940-43, but the score went missing after the Stockholm premiere in 1944. Klami revised the work in 1954 – the version played here – three years before the original eventually came to light in the Swedish radio archives.

The first movement, Allegro molto moderato, certainly has the rough-hewn grandeur of Sibelius – apparently Klami’s model for this concerto – but Jennifer Koh brings a compensating warmth and lyricism to the proceedings. She is a talented fiddler who favours more contemporary music, so this concerto doesn’t pose too many technical challenges for her. That said, she shows good judgment in the extended solo passages – from 2:26, for instance – which could sound oversweet in other hands. There is also a wonderful brooding feel to this movement, not to mention some unusual splashes of instrumental colour.

In the more inward sections the violin tone may be a little anaemic but Koh makes up for it in the weightier, more animated moments, as well as the music’s more infectious rhythms (6:29 onwards). There is plenty of character in the latter and the Lahti band are as polished as ever. Having listened to Aho almost continuously for the past few weeks I was struck by how lean Klami’s concerto sounds, especially towards the end of the first movement, yet it retains just enough late-Romantic bloom to ensure wide appeal.

That is certainly true of the Adagio, which opens with a sense of wistfulness, soon echoed by the soloist. Koh seems at ease here, and again she doesn’t allow the music’s melancholic air to descend into mawkishness. Indeed, for all its robustness elsewhere this movement does come perilously close to sentimentality. Still, who can resist the heart-on-sleeve Romanticism of the Adagio’s final pages when it’s played as eloquently as this?

In his liner-notes Aho mentions hints of Prokofiev and Stravinsky here, but I’d say Klami’s sound world is not quite as ascerbic as that. The insistent rhythms of the final movement are certainly spikier than anything we’ve heard so far, although there is a genial bounce to this music as well. Indeed, this is probably Klami at his wittiest, the violin melodies flitting, Ariel-like, above the orchestra. It all ends rather abruptly, leaving one feeling a tad underwhelmed. It’s clearly an enjoyable work but, as Aho admits, it’s not a great one.

Klami’s Suomenlinna overture takes its name from the islands around Helsinki that were fortified in the 18th century to protect the city from invaders. No doubt this has resonances for the composer, who visited them in 1940. Unfortunately the original score was lost in Germany, so Klami rewrote the piece in 1944.

Apparently there was some debate about whether this overture was too warlike; in the event it comes across as a suitably rousing piece, with a marvellous main theme and Bolero-like tread in the bass. Perhaps one could call this Klami’s Finlandia – it has the same weight and grandeur at times, not to mention a palpable tension that rises to a formidable climax. In between there is music of some eloquence, broadening into that martial theme at 5:48. Not surprisingly the dominance of C major gives this overture a sense of hope and affirmation, thrillingly realised by the Lahti band’s incisive brass. And, yes, that Bolero-like theme returns at 9:55. A spine-tingler that really ought to be better known.

Thanks to Robert von Bahr and his team for shining a light on the dustier recesses of Finnish music. Klami may not be in the same league as Sibelius and Aho, but what he lacks in ultimate stature he makes up for in passion and punch. Well worth investigating.

Now, back to that overture ....

Dan Morgan


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