Rautavaara may have never considered himself a choral composer, yet he definitely has a gift for choral writing. This disc contains a selection of his a capella works, admirably performed by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford. The works are in five languages, and come from different periods of the composer's life - consequently, from different styles. There is pentatonic, octatonic and even dodecaphonic writing, aleatoric, symmetric and palindromic music. Yet the form is never more than it should be: the form, to hold the musical contents, which are invariably driven by the heart, not by the brain. So, with all the strict techniques, this music is very listenable, diverse and engaging. It also fits the texts, finding the exact character of each one.
The disc can be very roughly divided into three sections: the "troubled", the "festive" and the "depressed". The first section comprises two suites based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. But you won't find the customary "Spanish" moves in the music. The Suite de Lorca is compact and gripping. The text lines are often multilayered. I hear remote echoes of Orff's Trionfi. The composer's palette is rich, and he achieves an almost orchestral variety. It only gets better in Canción de nuestro tiempo. The music has more breadth and span. There are truly wonderful moments, such as the misty sound-field of the middle part - after all, Rautavaara is the creator of Cantus Arcticus!. We also hear soaring, cosmic soprano solos from Lucy Page whose voice is heavenly. This is a bitter reflection on our life today, which, unfortunately, still is, as it was in Lorca's days, "neither noble, nor good, nor sacred".
On the way to the Magnificat, we pass via a calm and tender Canticum Mariae virginis, full of soft shining. Symmetry is the key word here; voice lines are mirrored while passing through the sound field, like rays of light in a cathedral full of mirrors. This is a very beautiful piece. In the Magnificat Rautavaara applies some of the same techniques on a larger scale. But there is more variety here - in both method and mood. The latter goes from quiet awe to ecstatic jubilation, with several beautiful stations on the way. There are quiet waves of sound with soprano solos soaring over; there are urgent, rhythmic parts, and even a speech choir. The music is very airy, sunlit, and more than once the white doves of Hildegard von Bingen crossed my mind.
Our joyful'st feast is a setting of three Renaissance extracts: the first one from Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, the third from Hamlet and the middle one from Shakespeare's contemporary George Wither. The theme is Christmas, and the text progresses from rather down-to-earth joy in the first part, through generalization in the second, to higher levels in the third. This is reflected in the music: it starts like a regular part-song, a Christmas carol, and rises to celestial heights in the end.
And back to the griefs of the Earth we fall. Halavan himmeän alla ('In the shade of the willow') contains three excerpts adapted from Rautavaara's opera Aleksis Kivi. The texts are by Aleksis Kivi, a Finnish author of the 19th century. The gloomy first song speaks about depression, despair and the will to die and be buried in peace. The subsequent Song of the squirrel is in a lighter mood - like a wistful, rhythmic lullaby. The closing poem Sydämeni laulu (Song of my heart) is a heartbreaking farewell of a parent to his dead child. It is better known in the setting by Sibelius, which is more simple, more in the folksong-style and, in my opinion, more poignant and memorable. But, then, it is not easy to compete with Sibelius.
We go deeper into the Night with Rilke's First Elegy, his essay on angels. Rautavaara shares the poet's belief: angels are terrible creatures! "For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us". The music is complex, dodecaphonic, steadily advancing in cautious steps towards the blazing C major. It seems to sum up the preceding pieces, combining Lorca's dark horror with bright Catholic glories. The text has a big weight here, and you should follow it in order to have a complete experience.
Comparing the performance of the Lorca Suite to the one led by Paul Hillier on Harmonia Mundi, I can say that the Estonian choir of Hillier is more "standard": its sound is deeper, more vibrating. The Oxford choir is much more focused and crisp; they may produce less beautiful sound, but they definitely find and uncover more interesting effects in this music. After hearing them, the Harmonia Mundi disc sounds monochrome. The spacious recording by Hyperion helps here too. Another thing I noticed in the Oxford performance: there is no routine, no "and go on like this", every note seems to have its own touch and treatment, each one has its value in the music. This makes the result very much alive.
The Oxford singers encounter more serious competition from the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir, conducted by Tino Nuoranne, on Ondine. That disc, besides Canción de nuestro tiempo and Halavan himmeän alla, contains True & False Unicorn, one of Rautavaara's large-scale vocal works. It is not easy to compare, since both presentations are very good: the Finns are a bit more powerful, the British more vibrant. The Oxford choir are absolute winners in the middle part of Canción: their ‘sound-sea’ is full of vibrantly alive birds, the solo tenor is appropriately dim, and the solo bass rings out like a newborn bell. In the last part, the Ondine performance is too fast to bring out the terror; the Hyperion is just right. In the Kivi settings, the Finnish choir is probably a notch better in terms of width and depth of choral fabric.
All in all, this is a very well-sung set of powerful, beautiful music. The choir still has something to improve - I think the sopranos could be bettered. The works on this disc, especially the Latin ones, would benefit from a more refined and "lush" soprano sound. But I loved the basses, including the soloist Benjamin Woodgates: youthful and sharp, very different from the amorphous basses you sometimes hear. The conductor James Burton does a really good job here, leading the choir with a sure hand through some rather complex structures. All choices of tempi and dynamics are excellent. The recording level - I mean the volume - is very, very low, but it does not affect the music after you adjust the volume or adjust yourself to the volume. The recording quality is something to marvel at: very spacious and clear, presenting the voices in full 3-D. The booklet follows the label’s admirable traditions. It contains well-written notes by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (in English, French and German), and full texts with English translations.
A very well-sung collection of powerful, beautiful music… see Full Review