Which of Sallinen’s works/recordings made you mark his name
for further exploration? For me it involved a Swedish LP and
a radio broadcast. The album is predictable enough. It was the
pioneering BIS-LP-41 of symphonies 1 and 3 (Okko Kamu) and Chorali
(Paavo Berglund). The broadcast was of a performance of the
stunning Cello Concerto by Arto Noras who already interested
me because he had recorded with smoking fervour the Bliss Cello
Concerto for EMI and the Klami Cheremissian Fantasy for
Things moved on from there. My interest increased in this Finnish
composer from a generation born two decades before Sibelius’s
death. He was modern yet definitely not a swooning post-romantic.
His music was characterised by stubborn heroics, discontinuous
triumphs, terse, expressive ideas and a real lyrical proclivity.
Crucial discoveries for me included hearing his Dies Irae
broadcast from the Three Choirs in 1981, Shadows
conducted by Bryden Thomson and the first UK performance of
the Violin Concerto in 1982 with the BBC Scottish and Maurice
Handford conducting. In 1986 I encountered Symphonies Nos. 2
and 4 with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra again directed by
Thomson in 1986. I was hooked. The barb became more deeply embedded
with Finlandia’s Meet the Composer volume (8573-81972-2
- issued 1997) which presented the truly magnificent and very
memorable Cello Concerto (Noras) and Symphonies 4 and 5 (Saraste
and Kamu) among other things. That Warner label 2 CD set just
pre-dated the launch of MusicWeb International. I have previously
reviewed several of the five Sallinen orchestral discs issued
by CPO and have been more than impressed by this Rasilainen-conducted
The present Edition is the only game in town. There is nothing
comparable. All eight symphonies are there, three concertos
and clutch of smaller orchestral works. It’s a substantial set
assembling five separately issued CDs released between 2002
and 2007 and housing them in a card sheath. The price ranges
between £30 and £40 on Amazon representing some saving on the
individual discs. The vertebra of these discs is Sallinen’s
entire eight symphonies. The ‘missing’ concertos are the ones
for flute (1995), violin, piano and chamber orchestra (2005),
clarinet, viola (variant clarinet, cello) and orchestra (2007-8)
and cor anglais (2010); all in due time though the flute concerto
has been available on Naxos 8.554185 for quite some time.
I will not comment on every work featured beyond saying that
this set of discs evinces a serious and brilliantly executed
intent. This was evidently a project that mattered greatly.
Its presence on the market should be capitalised on by all enthusiasts
iof this composer and of Finnish music and indeed of 20th
century music at large.
Cellular construction and iterative development of ideas are
Sallinen hallmarks. These are apparent in the tense Fourth Symphony
which also makes distinctive use of bells and percussion. Other
broadly referenced moments link with Arnold, Prokofiev and Alan
Hovhaness – especially the tumultuously baleful brass writing
in the Vishnu symphony. The single movement Second Symphony
is less successful as a symphony than its extraordinary flankers
(symphonies 1 and 3 first recorded by Kamu on Bis). It sports
a wide spectrum percussion array: marimba, vibraphone, crotales,
tom-toms, bongos, Chinese temple blocks and gongs, military
drum, side drum, suspended cymbal and large tam-tam.
The Horn Concerto is subtitled Bells and Arias. It is
classic Sallinen material with its frank lyric qualities, especially
in the central movement, completely liberated by the decade's
acceptance of melodic material. The horn sings autumnally as
well as rasping and abrading in Britten-style fanfares. Everything
is presented with a lucidity that is unafraid to reveal the
work’s wonderfully engaging building blocks.
Mauermusik or Wall Music was written in Köln in
1962. It is to the memory of a young East German who was shot
to death for attempting to cross the Berlin Wall into the West.
The work was premiered in 1964, not by Berglund, but by Ulf
Söderblom in Helsinki. Written before Sallinen fully found his
own voice and amid a dominant atonal conformity, this is a moving
and desolate piece that, in its string writing recalls, the
Penderecki of the 1960s. This is not the Sallinen we know but
a young composer paying his dues to the norms of the time.
The steely silvery awe of Shadows has a wandering Sibelian
bass which transforms into a billowing cannonade of vehemently
threatening sound. Symphony No. 8 – his last - speaks of anxiety-haunted
exploration. The opening is spattered with sparse woodblock
clatter under an awed brass-led largo. The bell finale is built
from the notes of the name of the orchestra ConCErtGEBouw AmstErDAm.
The title, Autumnal Fragments, relates to 9/11. The work
ends in a calming yet stertorous funereal cortege that finally
slides into silence.
Sallinen is also renowned for his operas: The Horseman (1975),
The Red Line (1978), The King Goes Forth To France
(1983), The Palace (1991-3), Kullervo (1988)
and King Lear (1999). Shadows has its origin in
The King Goes Forth while The Palace Rhapsody's
operatic sources are self-evident. It is scored for winds, percussion,
harp and orchestra. It has a more candidly Sibelian tang. This
thoughtful, brooding piece lit with flashes of brilliance is
a work of line and continuity much more than the Eighth Symphony.
We also hear what is the third recording of the Violin Concerto
– this time from Jaako Kuusisto – a stalwart of Bis’s now completely
Edition. There’s one on Campion
coupled with the Sibelius and the irresistible but reactionary
Janis Ivanovs' concerto; don’t miss it. The recording here is
much more refined and also has greater grip at every dynamic
level. This early work predates the wonderful Sinfonia which
was his First Symphony. It is an intense song, very romantic
in a modernist sense, somehow Sibelian without replicating the
language. It is not 12 tone but feels modern and the zither
and harpsichord encapsulate this at the start of the second
movement. Its flood of incident and imagination certainly fascinates.
Chorali dates from 1970 and was conducted by Berglund
on that first Bis LP. It sounds just as vivid here. The Seventh
Symphony The Dreams of Gandalf predictably owes its inspiration
to Tolkien. It recycles material from an abortive The Hobbit
ballet Sallinen once had in hand. The composer says that the
music is an expression of literary atmosphere and poetry: heroic
and legendary, mysterious and meditative – I have appropriated
Hubert Culot’s apposite words here. This fantastic music ends
in calm. The King Lear piece draws on material from the
opera and is completely in keeping with its sombre, tragic and
I would also refer you to Hubert’s review
of Sallinen’s The Barabbas Dialogues. It is on a separate
CPO which is not included in the present set.
Recording and production values throughout are excellent: open,
vital and lively. Rasilainen and his orchestras and soloists
appear confident and virtuosic and their fidelity to the composer’s
vision is suggested if not guaranteed by the supervising presence
of the composer during these recordings.
The annotation is in the stylish and well-informed hands of
Martin Anderson. It runs counter to CPO's tendency towards a
congealed dissertation style - an effect usually exacerbated
by translation into English.
These eight symphonies form one of the building blocks of Finish
and world culture. Far from being merely significant they also
deliver a fine, virile and far from effete imaginative contribution
to the two centuries in which this music was created.