Peter EÖTVÖS (b. 1944)
Levitation (2007) [19:53]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57 (1928) [24:00]
Aulis SALLINEN (b. 1935)
Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Chamber Orchestra, Op. 91 (2007) [23:53]
Christoffer Sundqvist (clarinet), Kullervo Kojo (clarinet), Tommi Aalto (viola)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu (Eötvös and Nielsen); Okko Kamu (Sallinen)
rec. 8-9 October 2009 (Sallinen), 11-13 February 2010 (Nielsen) and 6-7 May 2010 (Eötvös), Kultuuritalo, Helsinki
ALBA ABCD 314 [68:11]
Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto is an unusual and uncompromising work. Cast in a single movement, and with a strange orchestra of strings, two horns, two bassoons and side drum, it casts a powerful spell. The opening is pastoral and almost neo-classical in atmosphere, giving no clue to the highly dramatic nature of what is to follow. Conflict is at the heart of much of the music, with repeated and sudden changes of mood. (The booklet notes offer a clue to this, in that Aage Oxenvaad, for whom the work was written, suffered from bipolar disorder.) The musical language, too, ranges very widely, from sweet and gentle harmonies to passages where the clarinet screams wildly in a highly chromatic upper register. The work closes in a kind of calm, though all is not resolved. The work has become a classic but has lost little of its power to surprise and challenge. If you are mainly looking for this remarkable work I feel duty bound to recommend an alternative performance from the many distinguished ones available, that by Martin Fröst on BIS. It is coupled with the concerto by Kalevi Aho, complicating an already difficult choice, as the present performance also has very worthwhile and generous couplings. And it is, in any event, a very fine performance. Christoffer Sundqvist is the principal clarinettist of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and his technical mastery is never in doubt. He is brilliant in the more virtuoso passages, and exquisitely tender where required, as in the introspective unaccompanied passage in the first section of the work, as beautifully played here as I have ever heard it. I don’t think he has quite the range of tone colour as Fröst, and the orchestral contribution is not quite so vivid, but the difference is marginal, and Sundqvist’s performance, taken on its own terms, will not disappoint.
And then there is the rest of the programme. The notes tell us that each of the four movements of Peter Eöstvös’s piece explores different aspects of the subject of levitation. The first movement has street furniture - phone boxes and road signs - flying about in a hurricane, whereas the second evokes a recurring dream the composer has of his own body floating, horizontally, over a landscape. The third movement describes gondolas on - or presumably above - Venetian waterways, and the last has Petrushka, buoyant, high above the world that has dealt so cruelly with him. Since the notes, and presumably the composer, give so detailed a “programme” it seems logical to comment on it. In fact, there is not much in the way of contrast in this work. Each movement is a kind of mood painting, with no themes as such, but fragments, motifs, mostly without any discernible pulse. If there were no gaps between the movements I’m not sure that I should know which one I was in, at least, not for the first few hearings. Thus the first-movement conjures up the gentlest, most beguiling hurricane you could imagine, and you will listen in vain, in the third movement “barcarola”, for any suggestion of the characteristic rhythm that normally goes with the name. The writing for the three solo instruments - two clarinets and accordion - is completely without show or bravado. All this does not stop this piece creating a powerful impression. The sounds the composer finds within the ensemble are exquisite and, for the most part, astonishingly tranquil, restful, tender and subtle. Maybe it’s another of those pieces that one would appreciate more, or at any rate no less, if the composer gave no information about it. I enjoyed it enormously the first time I heard it, and it positively compels the listener to return to it.
Getting to know the music of Aulis Sallinen - I would recommend the opera The King Goes Forth To France (Ondine) or any of the symphonies in the admirable CPO series - is an ongoing pleasure that continues with the double concerto on this disc. Its three movements deal with issues related to man’s relationship with animals. The first is a gentle lament for two dolphins drowned in a fisherman’s net in the Baltic Sea, and the third pays homage to the noble bull destined to die in the arena. Only the middle movement, “Les Jeux”, which deals with games, seems to stretch the theme somewhat, the parallels between animals and humans appearing to extend no further than the fact that playing of any kind is unimportant for the survival of a species. The work opens with a duet, accompanied only by timpani, for the two soloists. Other instruments are added gradually, and the movement progresses, via a series of ravishing sounds, to create an unforgettable atmosphere of gentle sadness and regret. Anger at man’s treatment of animals appears in the final movement only in one or two rare passages of display for the soloists. Otherwise this is an expression of deep sorrow that we should be capable of such things. The middle movement is a rapid, colourful scherzo, brilliant and witty, beautifully written for the whole ensemble. The programme is revealed by the composer in the booklet note, with almost no reference to the music. At least the message is a simple one - no complex theorising, nor, thank goodness, any attempt to transform the shape of a dolphin into a musical cipher! And the music itself is at once challenging yet easy enough on the ear to be enjoyed even at first acquaintance, so commentary is scarcely necessary. Even so - and once again - there is no doubt in my mind that the work can be enjoyed just as much by a listener unaware of the message behind it.
This is a beautifully recorded CD, and the performances from all concerned are exemplary. The side-drum player in the Nielsen is named in the booklet, but not - a serious omission - the accordionist in the Eötvös. Sallinen provides the short commentary on his own work, whereas the informative notes on the other two pieces are by Jouni Kaipainen. All the notes are translated into English by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, whom many readers will know as a distinguished composer in his own right, especially of choral music.
William Hedley 

A very fine performance of the Nielsen Concerto, coupled with two beguiling contemporary works for clarinet