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Uuno KLAMI (1900-1961)
Northern Lights, Op.38 (1946) [18:49]
Cheremissian Fantasy, Op.19 (1931) [13:27]
Kalevala Suite, Op.23 (1943) [32:56]
Samuli Peltonen (cello)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgärds
rec. 30 January, 2 February 2009 (Northern Lights; Kalevala) and 11 September 2009 (Fantasy), Finlandia Hall, Helsinki. DDD
ONDINE ODE1143-2 [65:25]

Experience Classicsonline

I did a quick survey of some of my musical friends. Firstly, “Name me a Finnish composer?” Four out of five came up with the obvious - “Jean Sibelius”. Secondly, “Name me another”. A blank was drawn. And these were musically literate people. I threw in a few names - Einojuhani Rautavaara, Aulis Sallinen, Leevi Madetoja and Selim Palmgren. One of the five had heard of Rautavaara and his Canticus Arcticus and another had come across the piano music of Palmgren. That was it. 

I am not an expert on Finnish classical music and do not claim to know more than a fraction of the music of this beautiful country. However, my interest in Sibelius has led me to explore a few of these composers and their compositions. Listeners may well be surprised just how interesting much of this music is. Perhaps my two favourite discoveries are Leevi Madetoja and the composer of the works on this disc, Uuno Klami. 

It is not the place to give a biography of Klami, but perhaps a few key dates, events and comments may be helpful for readers who are not familiar with him.

Uuno Klami was born in Virolahti on 20 September 1900. His family were merchants and seafarers who travelled far and wide. It was the influence of this breadth of experience and a developed cosmopolitan attitude that moulded Klami’s musical personality. After an elementary education, the young man studied music at the Helsinki Music Institute with Erkki Melartin, Paris with Florent Schmitt and finally Vienna with Hans Gál. During his studies he met the great and the good in European music possibly including Maurice Ravel who was to have a major influence on his music. After many years of composing and fighting in wars - he was a combatant in six of them - Uuno Klami died at his birthplace aged 60. He was sailing his favourite boat ‘Mina’ at the time in the Gulf of Finland.

Klami’s catalogue is considerable, with a wide range of compositions including two piano concertos, three symphonies, a number of cantatas and a wide range of descriptive pieces including Sea Pictures and the present Northern Lights. Perhaps his most outré title is The Cyclist-Rondo for Orchestra (1946). This is a piece of music I would love to hear!

Klami’s musical personality reflects his cosmopolitan upbringing. It is possible to hear a wide variety of styles in his music. These include Russian and Spanish colouring, jazz, Finnish folk music and Chinese melodies. The composers that appear to have had most impact are Ravel and Stravinsky rather than the towering figure of Sibelius. Two major influences on Klami are the sea and the Finnish myths contained in the Kalevala. Although he sometimes explores ‘modernist’ musical language, the general tenor of his works is romantic. The mechanics of composition are well served - he is a superb orchestrator and has a good appreciation of form. Every piece of his music that I have heard is compelling; it is never long-winded and it never fails to hold the listener’s interest.

The three works presented on this disc make an excellent introduction to Klami’s music. The earliest piece is the Cheremissian Fantasy for cello and orchestra. This was composed in 1931 and represents the composer’s flirtation with the ‘primitivism of the early 20th-century’ and that genre’s most famous work, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Klami was inspired to compose this piece after receiving two transcriptions of folk tunes made by A.O. Väisänen, an ethno-musicologist. These were from the Cheremis (now Mari) people who live on the northern reaches of the Volga River. Scholars have indicated that Klami did not quote these tunes or even use them as a direct source of musical material. It was more a case of the composer absorbing the mood of the melodies and the rhythmic patterns. This is perhaps the least ‘romantic’ of the pieces on this CD; it has a certain economy and transparency of orchestration that gives the music great clarity and poignancy.

The Fantasy is in two movements which are played without a break - a Lento, molto tranquillo followed by a stunning Presto con Bravura. The contrast between the melancholy of the first movement and the sheer hedonism of the Presto is palpable. It is here that the influence of Stravinsky is most obvious. The Cheremissian Fantasy is regarded as one of the most important concerted works for cello in the Finnish music.

I had not heard the Revontulet or Northern Lights orchestral fantasy before. This is the latest work on this CD and was composed after the conclusion of the Second World War in 1946. The programme notes point out that sketches were made for this work during the War, and that the work was developed over a two and half year period. It is understood that Klami himself felt that this ‘sea- music’ was his best work. Certainly it seems like a summing up of his career and influences. The composer makes use of all the orchestral styles that ‘he inherited from Berlioz, Chabrier, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Stravinsky’.

Klami noted that ‘The northern lights can be much more than a superficial play of colours in the sky. They can be an expression of the infinite loneliness of the human spirit.’ This sums up the work well. It is not a comfortable landscape that Klami creates, but one that is bleak and often menacing. Yet, there are numerous flashes of light and not a little warmth introduced into the score. I was impressed by the orchestration of this piece: it is a master-class in the creation of colour and light and shade.

The Kalevala Suite is the best known of Klami’s works. These ‘Five tone pictures’ for large orchestra are of near-symphonic length. The music is based on the cycle of Finnish myths, the Kalevala. Sibelius used this collection of national matter for a number of his tone poems such as Pohjola’s Daughter, The Swan of Tuonela and the Kullervo Symphony.

The work was a long time in production. More than a decade was to pass from the first suggestion by the conductor Robert Kajanus that Klami should consider using these legends until the final score was produced in 1943. However, Kimmo Korhonen (Naxos sleeve-notes 8.553757) has suggested that the first thoughts about this music actually dated back to Klami’s first hearing of The Rite of Spring in the mid-1920s in Paris.

There was always a danger this music would be overshadowed by those undoubted masterpieces by Sibelius. So, he took a different approach. Instead of evoking ‘events’ and ‘personalities’ in his tone poems he decided to eschew a programme and depict the mood and background of the events. This music is much more about cosmology than history.

The opening music ‘The Creation of the Earth’ once again approaches The Rite of Spring with its violence and musical energy. As the programme notes suggest, the music moves from a ‘cold cosmic vision’ to a ‘brilliant celebration of the creation of the planet’. However the second movement could not be in greater contrast. Residing somewhere between the pastoral and the impressionist this tone-picture is a near perfect evocation of the ‘Sprout of Spring.’

The third movement - ‘Terhenniemi’ is the ‘scherzo’ movement and is simply (actually complex music) a celebration of life and creation. It is the quality of the orchestration that will first impress the listener here. The music chatters and shimmers its way towards an outpouring of the sounds of nature. This is summer’s day music in contrast to the previous movement’s celebration of spring. It is surely one of the great ‘landscape’ pieces of any age or country.

‘ The Cradle Song for Lemminkäinen’ is much darker music. In fact, it seems to me to be more to do with death than a lullaby for a child. Yet there is an indescribable, if somewhat austere beauty about this music that does not quite depress the exuberant mood of the previous three movements. The cor anglais solo adds to the gloom.

The finale is rip-roaring: few works can end with music quite so compelling as ‘The Forging of the Sampo’. A Sampo is a magical artefact that was supposed to bring good fortune to its owner. If the device was stolen it would be the cause of great violence until recovered. All this is portrayed in the music. Do not be misled by the quiet, misty opening: the music suddenly opens out into a brilliant orgy of hammer-blows, sweeping strings and blaring brass. Once again the influence of Stravinsky is felt here. The movement and the Suite conclude in a positive, if rather scary manner. Erik Tawaststjerna has summed up the Kalevala Suite well as being “the coalescing of a spirit from original twilight to physical action”.

The sound quality of this Ondine disc is excellent. The music is played with due attention to the wide variety of mood and styles from the more impressionistic moments, through the complex scherzo-like music to the Wagnerian conclusion of the Kalevala Suite and the disc. The soloist Samuli Peltonen makes a major contribution with his well stated and sensitive performance in the Cheremissian Fantasy.

The programme notes are excellent and provide sufficient information to understand both composer and his music.

Uuno Klami is a name that is little known outside his native Finland. However he is a composer that well deserves our attention. This disc serves as a fine introduction to his music, with two of his most popular pieces alongside a superb example of ‘sea-music’. I hope that it will encourage further exploration.

John France 

see also review by Rob Barnett (February 2010 Recording of the Month)



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