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Jonathan Woolf
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Jonathan Woolf
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CD: Merlin Classics

Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942)
Russian Requiem (1967) [39:57]
Four Russian Songs (1979) [17:26]
Christine Bunting (soprano): Susan Mason (contralto) Hilary Thomas (soprano) Keith Swallow (piano)
Birmingham Festival Choral Society and Orchestra/Jeremy Patterson
rec. St Paul’s Church, Birmingham, December 1988
CORINIUM CMCD001 [57:47]


CD: Merlin Classics

Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942)
The Alabaster Box (1980) [20:01]
Romance de la Pena Negra (1990) [16:56]
Philomel (1980) [14:13]
The Blizzard and the Dark (1980) [27:29]
Andrée Black (soprano) Hilary Thomas (soprano)
Fenella Humphreys (violin) Raymond Burley (guitar): Richard Leigh Harris (piano)
Timothy Kipling (flute) Danielle Perrett (harp)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, August and September 2001
CORINIUM CMCD002 [79:06]

CD: Merlin Classics

Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942)
Turning World [5:09]
Tara’s Harp [6:59]
Hymn to the Sun [4:58]
Irinna’s Song [6:24]
Travel Sonata [14:53]
The White Swan [5:32]
Mountain Sketches [14:10]
Athena’s Flute [4:52]
Black Swans [4:05]
Over the Water - Third Movement of the Concerto for Recorder and Strings [4:27]
The Candle Burned (The Agnus Dei from the Russian Requiem) (1967) [6:40]
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano) Christine Bunting (soprano) Susan Mason (contralto) Hilary Thomas (soprano)
Richard Leigh Harris, Helen Reid, Keith Swallow (piano) Fenella Humphreys (violin) Danielle Perrett (harp) Raymond Burley (guitar) John Turner (recorders) Ross Winters (alto recorder) Timothy Kipling (flute)
Birmingham Festival Choral Society and Orchestra/Jeremy Patterson
Manchester Camerata strings/Philip McKenzie
rec. St Mary’s Church, Woodbridge, October 2006; Alpheton Mill Recording Studios, September and October 2006; Manchester Grammar School, May 2006; Stockport Grammar School, July 2006; and St Paul’s Church, Birmingham, 1988
CORINIUM CMCD003 [78:04]
Experience Classicsonline

Elis Pehkonen was born in Norfolk in 1942 but though British, he is, as his name suggests, of Finnish extraction. In 1960 he won a composition scholarship to the RCM and studied there with Peter Racine Fricker. His first commission came six years later - Everyman for the King’s Lynn Festival - and his first broadcast work was in 1968. For over twenty years he taught at Cirencester School. He has now composed over one hundred and fifty pieces, and many are major choral ones. This review traces three CDs of his music.

The Russian Requiem (1967) was influenced by the events of the 1917 Revolution. He employs Old Russian Chant and his string writing is powerful. In the Dies Irae the writing reaches a concentrated core of intensity after the solo; maybe Shostakovich is an influence. In terms of texts he has not used the full Missa Pro Defunctis but has incorporated writings from a range of sources - Dante, Pasternak, Lenin and The Revelation of St John the Divine. To heighten texts he employs evocative brass fanfares. In the Agnus Dei the writing is limpid and consoling, ending a powerful work in beneficent gentleness and reflection. The companion work here is Four Russian Songs of 1979. They range from the melancholy of In the Window to the folkloric sparkle of The Young Girl Was Married Off, where the glistening piano commentary is harp-like. The succeeding song is delightfully full of verve whilst the wordless melancholia of By the Seashore and its associated fulsome piano writing is magnetically Russian.

The two-part The Alabaster Box opens the next CD under discussion. For soprano and harp this is a subtle, reflective, refractive work, the second part of which is less clotted and introspective. Here too there is a bardic quality to the writing, in the harp runs, that resurfaces in several of Pehkonen’s works. Romance de la Pena Negra sets one of Lorca’s most celebrated poems and possibly acknowledges de Falla. It certainly fuses the folkloric with more studied classical writing to good effect. The violin and guitar offer the most obvious folk timbres in support of the soprano. There is torrid expression here but one that ends in a soaring purificatory ending, the piano and guitar in rippling, river-exuding support. Deft writing informs Philomel; programmatic, lyrical, variational. A warmly sculpted work it oozes narrative particularity and assured control of metre; all swallow swoop and songs of the night. Finally The Blizzard and the Dark, five songs that open with piano chimes at midnight and embrace soaring vocal lines, bittersweet effusion, and the strenuous and striving. The poems are by the dissident Russian poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya.

The last of the CDs takes in song and sonata. There’s the quiet rapture and longing of the title track, Turning World, set to the composer’s own text, as well as the sinewy bardic strains and increasingly vibrant folkloric accelerando of Tara’s Harp. The next song, Hymn to the Sun, is beautifully controlled; very precise but not seeming too controlled, and its sound world is evocatively traced and laced with birdsong. The Greek-inspired Irinna’s Song is a touch long but again eloquent. This is a splendid set of songs. The Travel Sonata for violin and piano is wittily named, dashing us about from Scots-Irishry to Francophile scherzo brevity, thence via a lyric love song to an exciting and vital finale. The Mountain Sketches are craggy; slow chordal drift points up their immensity and fixity. Moon over Suilven assuredly shows the still majesty of the scene. Over the Water is the third movement of the Concerto for Recorder and Strings - it’s very wistful - whereas The Candle Burned is the Agnus Dei from the Russian Requiem in the same performance as the one noted above.

His interpreters serve him with great sensitivity and control and the recordings are never less than perfectly serviceable, and often much more. Texts are included and there are attractive booklets.

Pehkonen’s music is tonal, lyric, melancholic, bardic and more besides. He has a poet’s ear for the stress and fall of texts, and his songs are invariably worth hearing. In larger scale works his ear doesn’t falter, in smaller ones he reaches out for folk influences.

Jonathan Woolf  


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