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Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928)
Before the Icons (1955/2005) [25.15]
A Tapestry of Life (2007) [24.10]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, 27 October 2006 (Before the Icons), 25 September 2009 (A Tapestry of Life)
ONDINE ODE 1149-2 [49.37]

Experience Classicsonline

The Ondine label has for a while been building up a quietly spectacular catalogue of CDs with the work of Einojuhani Rautavaara. This impressive if rather brief contribution is every bit up to the standards of all concerned: composer, musicians and recording engineers.

Before the Icons started out life as a set of pieces for piano, though the imagination and creativity employed to make these orchestrations means that such origins are left so far behind as to be invisible. There is a certain quality to the harmonies which harks back to the 1950s, but this is part of the attraction of the music. If you like Panufnik, perhaps even at times Tippett, Vaughan Williams or other composers who were at their best in and around this period, then you will find a great deal to relish in the ten pieces which make up these Icons. This music shouldn’t be confused with other ‘icons’ which have arisen since, and this music isn’t particularly Holy, despite having titles which refer to Biblical subjects and characters. In his own booklet notes, Rautavaara colourfully fills in programmatic or descriptive content, but even without such literal pointers the splendour and drama of the music transcends single-message references. There are some unifying sonorities, such as the opening fanfare of The Death of the Mother of God, which can be compared to another moment 30 seconds into part 6, The Baptism of Christ. The whole piece does have an extra-musical quality which can be quite cinematic at times in an exotic, Cecil B. DeMille fashion. Again, this is not a criticism, but a way of getting some kind of handle on what to expect. There is much which is contemplative and spiritual without being overtly religious, there is much lyricism which manages to avoid over-sweet sentimentality, and there is a powerful and constant sense of drama which never loses its refinement and poise.

Although written over 40 years later, a similar description might apply to A Tapestry of Life. The underlying musical messages are more universal here, but the landscapes are also exotic and richly perfumed. Rautavaara has his melodies more often than not played in parallel seconds – a sort of invisible close-harmony which lends them an added astringency and tension, as well as enriching the textures as a whole - especially where the accompanying harmonies are relatively simple. The span of these four movements is generally longer than with the Icons and the feel is more timeless, though none of the movements is over 8 minutes.

The first movement, Stars Swarming, was inspired by a poem by Edith Södergran called The Stars. Both harp and tuned percussion add sparkle to a piece whose moodily shifting nocturnal harmonies build to a fleeting but high-impact climax. Halcyon Days lifts the mood, with rippling impressionistic colourations decorating rising harmonies. This movement is one of the highlights of the disc, and I admire its clarity of purpose, even though some might balk at its retro-romanticism. Sighs and Tears further develops the moods and colours of the previous movement in an extended lament which also shows how close the emotions of quiet joy and poignant sadness can appear to be. The Last Polonaise is “a variation of this solemn dance, which seems to have a special significance to [the composer], as a symbol of finality.” I was initially less convinced by this movement, reminding me of something once said about Willem Pijper: ‘if in doubt, Habanera’. Indeed, with the open tonalities and richness of orchestration there is more than just stodgily presented dance rhythms shared between this and other wood-panelled pieces from the 1930s. Ultimately it all fits however, with the Polonaise being just one of a number of elements in a movement which refers back to the previous movements, and which digs deep into dramas both dark and inspiring, though its sudden end does leave us wanting more.

This is an impressive and highly recommendable disc. Superbly recorded and performed, composer and conductor Leif Segerstam has assimilated Rautavaara’s idiom entirely, and draws a synergy of colour and expression from the Helsinki players which one can hardly imagine being bettered. This is real music which can be appreciated on many levels, and which should have a lasting place in contemporary performing repertoire.

Dominy Clements































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