Fiddler’s Spring
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
St. Paul’s Suite (1913) [12:07]
Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b.1928)
The Fiddlers, Op. 1 (1952) [6:57]
Lars-Erik LARSSON (1908-1986)
Folk-Song Night (1941) [3:03]
Ture RANGSTRÖM (1884-1947)
Fiddler’s Spring (1943) [12:02]
Pehr Henrik NORDGREN (1944-2008)
Pictures of Rural Past, Op. 139 (2006) [16:16]
Leó WEINER (1885-1960)
Divertimento No. 1, Op. 20 (1923) [10:21]
Rudolf TOBIAS (1873-1918)
Night Piece (1902/1939) [6:52]
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas
rec. 3-6 May 2010, Snellman Hall, Kokkola, Finland
ALBA ABCD330 [67:41]
For those whose geographical knowledge is as patchy as mine apparently is, Ostrobothnia is a region of Western Finland. More than half of its inhabitants are Swedish speakers. The town of Kokkola, where this recording was made, has getting on for 50,000 inhabitants and is situated in the neighbouring region of Central Ostrobothnia. From the CD booklet we learn that the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra - nineteen string players named, plus one harpist - was founded in 1972 by its current conductor, Juha Kangas, but only became a professional group in 1989. They have made over fifty records together: a glance at the Alba catalogue reveals some of them. I had never heard of the group before; their playing, on this evidence of this disc, is of the very highest quality.
Most of the programme is based on folk music, much of it associated with the tradition of the itinerant folk fiddler. First on the disc is a rather hard driven performance of Holst’s adorable St Paul’s Suite. Both Richard Hickox on Chandos, with a larger body of strings, and Sargent on an old EMI performance, find more lilt in the first movement without sacrificing the vivace the composer asks for. It is brilliantly played here, but in a “blind tasting” I think I should suspect - oh dear, what dangerous waters! - that this was not an English orchestra. But stick with it: it’s highly enjoyable, and the whole programme is refreshingly different and deeply satisfying. The players sound completely at home in Rautavaara’s Op. 1. (But who am I to say?) The work itself is a richly scored suite of five short movements inspired by an eighteenth-century collection of Finnish folk music. It’s a most engaging work and the playing is brilliant. The name of Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson was new to me. His short Folk-Song Night, an extract, so the insert notes tell us, from a suite entitled The Swedish Nation, was composed in 1941. Its yearning, elegiac atmosphere is perhaps a reaction to wartime. The musical vocabulary is traditional but the emotional punch it pulls in three short minutes is considerable. I listened to it again as soon as it had finished.
The work that gives the disc its title is perhaps less compelling. Ture Rangström was a Swedish composer who, according to the booklet notes, “cared little for fashionable musical trends.” His three-movement suite Fiddler’s Spring is undemanding listening, though no less charming and melodious for that. The nocturnal middle movement is perhaps the most affecting, but there are many attractive moments throughout and it is expertly laid out for strings. These marvellous players make the best possible case for it. They are also fine advocates for Leó Weiner’s Divertimento. These arrangements of folk songs from the composer’s Hungarian homeland are, once again, both easy to listen to and very satisfying. Apart from a short, graceful interlude which is the third of its five movements, this is very lively music indeed. Among the high spots is the arrival of a delicious, lyrical tune near the end of the second movement “Fox Dance”. And the final movement is based on a dance that accompanied tamping the ground before building a house. All I can say is, a lot of energy was required to get the tamping done in those days! The disc closes with the beautiful and touching Night Piece, the slow movement of a string quartet by Rudolf Tobias in an arrangement for string orchestra by Eduard Tubin.
Taking centre stage, as it were, in this collection of delightful music, and taking us into quite another world, is Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s Pictures of Rural Past. This suite of five “adaptations of Finnish folk tunes” uses a musical language significantly more advanced than the rest of the programme, and its aims are more serious. The harp is a distinct yet discreet presence throughout. The beginning is mysterious and unsettling, and leads to a first movement dirge that is dark indeed. Its harsh dissonances might seem perverse at first, but they are totally in harmony with the sombre nature of the music. Held drones, like bagpipes, and string melodies played without vibrato bring an unmistakeable Gaelic feel to the music, and spill over into the second piece, a cow herders’ song that is scarcely more optimistic in tone. The fourth piece depicts a generation of young Finns leaving their homeland to try their luck in America, and its interludes do offer a slightly more optimistic tone. One of these features a fiddler you would swear you had heard in the Irish pub down the road and who intones a melody that tends not to go where you expect it to, immediately accompanied by a counter-melody that certainly doesn’t go where you expect it to. The final piece is a kind of frantic reel demanding virtuoso playing. This is a profound and moving work, fabulously played here. The recording is outstanding rich and realistic.
William Hedley 

One well-known work and one remarkable masterpiece in a fascinating and magnificently played collection.