The first piece of Rautavaara I heard was a broadcast – in fact
the first UK broadcast – of Cantus Arcticus. I was captivated.
However encountering distant or distorted tapes of Sarbu’s radio
relay of the Violin Concerto and a Berglund-conducted Third Symphony
had my enthusiasm cooling. When I saw this limited edition boxed
set being issued by the label that has done more for Rautavaara
than any other it was time to renew acquaintance.
It comes as less
of a surprise that the First Symphony is so redolent
of 1940s and 1950s Americana when one realises that it was written
while Rautavaara was studying in the USA under a Koussevitsky
scholarship. The work has a springy sense of renewal and tension
that I associate with Schuman and Harris. Mix this with the
high-flown romantic manner of William Alwyn's First Symphony
and you know what to expect. I say this even if the genial and
slightly acid-bright finale looks towards Shostakovich.
The Second Symphony
is heard here in a version revised by the composer in 1984.
A short symphony, it’s still longer than the 16:35 of the Fourth.
It is a work cast over with foreboding, angular and gawky, awkward
and splendid, angry and heaving with noisy protest. It has some
echoes of 1950s Stravinsky along the way.
The Third Symphony
is from 1961 and like its successor is dodecaphonic. It
operates as a very inventive commentary and cross-fertilisation
with the Bruckner symphonies - especially the Fourth. Laced
with birdsong and tension this is music that hums with the current
of invention. Though you may in general be allergic this is
a work of one of one of dodecaphony’s most lucid and undogmatic
exponents. The emergence of the horn-call - which returns for
the finale - from a tensely rippling mystery at the very start
is unmistakable. Birdsong and ebullience are part of the weave
which even approaches the jocular in the finale.
The Fourth Symphony
is more obliquely expressed and less like Cantus Arcticus.
It is a work blasted and blasting with winding dissonance and
the mannered flurries and eddies of the early 1960s mainstream.
It recalls the Richard Rodney Bennett Third Symphony, once to
be heard on a Koch International CD. The work’s emergence was
labyrinthine. The original Fourth Symphony was written in 1964
but even after rewriting it in 1968 the composer was unhappy.
Discarding it altogether, he then dubbed a work previously called
Arabescata from 1962, yet not a symphony, as his
Fourth Symphony. And this is what we hear. The compact notes
by Kimmo Korhonen claim it as the only Finnish serialist symphony.
It is most lucidly recorded.
The first four symphonies
by Rautavaara were written in fairly quick succession in the
bridge across the 1950s into the 1960s. The last of that four
had proved a hard passage of arms. The composer left the form
alone for two decades, resuming with the Fifth Symphony in
1986. This is a very different single-movement work of 31 minutes
duration. It has a slow evolutionary gait and possesses a closer
engagement with the lyrical. A dazzle of birdsong is in there
just like the slow impressive unfold of Cantus Arcticus.
Its lustrous glowing purity and sturdy confident progress is
deeply impressive. It perhaps recalls Messiaen in its slowly
disintegrating magnificent explosions of sound. In this Rautavaara
shares a sound-world with his lesser known adopted Finnish contemporary
Friedrick Bruk. Something very similar can be heard in Bruk’s
indelibly impressive Pohjolan Legends Symphony.
The Sixth Symphony
Vincentiana is in four movements: I. Starry Night
[19:29]; II. The Crows [6:15]; III. Saint-Rémy [7:50]; IV. Apotheosis
[8:22]. This work is unique for Rautavaara in being derived
from his opera Vincent (1987). The Symphony itself is
from 1992. Tapiola-like gales ply the northern wastes and mass
stridulation of silvery insects shakes the rafters. The work's
phantasmagoric effect is intensified by the discreet use of
synthesiser. This is most adeptly and naturally resolved into
the sound of the orchestra. The ‘look and feel’ of this work
suggests the science fiction landscapes of the novels of C.S.
Lewis - a literary reference last occurring to me when listening
to Silvestrov's Fifth Symphony. After the first two movements
- in which the delightful stream of invention is buttressed
by synthesiser - the smiling gleam of Sibelian woodwind characterises
the Saint-Rémy movement. As it progresses we return to the silvery
shimmer of the earlier movements. The final apotheosis is simply
glorious - almost Debussian in its steadily unwinding melodic
confidence and summery ease - grand and endlessly rewarding.
This great cavalcade of a symphony delights in avian voices
and a perfect poise balanced between the numinous Messiaen and
the delicate Ravel.
The Seventh Symphony
is candidly lyrical. Its fabric and progress is yet more
naturally flowing than the Sixth. Its almost Scriabin-like ecstasy
recalls the orchestral writing of David Mathews reflected in
the recent Chandos CD – not to be missed - of The Music of
Dawn. The splintery second movement scherzo, with its passing
refracted echoes of Shostakovich, seems an interloper in this
company. The third movement partakes of the same angelic pristine
air as the outer movements of Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra yet
has about it more invention. A lot is going on amid all this
serenity. The Tallis-like contemplation is mixed with avian
effervescence in the finale. One can also draw parallels here
with the otherworldliness of Hovhaness and with the benediction
of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony.
The Eighth Symphony
was commissioned by the Philadelphia. Again it is in four
movements. Alongside the sense of a continental river flow we
hear a slightly dissonant harmonic tang. The second movement
reminds me of the First Symphony in its connection with the
sound of the American symphonies of the 1950s. The third movement
Tranquillo has the pleasingly bubbling mystery of the
first movement of the Third Symphony yet it is not at all dissonant.
The imagery of a great river returns for the finale blended
with a sort of Slavonic chant and a Hovhaness-like gravity of
expression. This wonderful lambent writing has towering grandeur.
were produced in collaboration with the composer between 1990
and 2005. They have been previously released by Ondine but with
With some 30 Rautavaara
entries in the Ondine catalogue the composer has been done considerable
justice by this gifted label. He must survey it with great pleasure
- he certainly deserves to. This set provides a sure route to
appreciate one of the grand voices of the last century. He speaks
with eloquence and with the engaged rasp and embrace of originality.
The music is lambent and Rautavaara’s creative journey leads
from dissonance to lyrical awe.