Seppo POHJOLA (b. 1965)
Symphony No. 1 (2002) [30:51]
Symphony No. 2 (2006) [29:38]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 30 August-1 September 2010 (No. 1), 14-15 April 2011 (No. 2), Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki, Finland. A DSD recording; stereo and multi-channel 5.0. SACD
ALBA ABCD 339 [60:49]
Kalevi Aho’s endlessly fascinating œuvre has given me great pleasure and spurred my interest in Finnish music. Einojuhani Rautavaara is another find, albeit one in its early stages, and I’ve come to admire the organ works of Oskar Merikanto and others of his ilk via Kalevi Kiviniemi’s superb Fuga recordings. As far as ensembles go, the Lahti and Finnish Radio orchestras and the YLE and Tapiola choirs are all first-class groups that need no introduction. The Finns also have two top-notch recording companies - Fuga and Alba - who produce the best SACDs in the business.
If the only Pohjola you know is the one in the Sibelius tone poem, then prepare to add another to your list. Seppo, who comes from a most distinguished musical family - his late father Erkki founded the Tapiola Choir, and the conductor Sakari Oramo is his uncle - started musical life as a horn player, becoming a freelance composer in 1995. Tragically he lost his older siblings, cellist Matti and flautist Olli, to whom the first symphony is dedicated. He has since composed two more, the second in 2006 and the third in 2011. Pohjola’s also written a number of works in other genres; I notice Rob Barnett welcomed an Alba disc of his chamber pieces back in 2004 (review).
In a musical landscape overshadowed by the towering, granitic presence of Sibelius attempting one’s maiden symphony must be quite a challenge. Happily Pohjola has come up with a work of remarkable freshness and vitality. Given the sad context of this music - that long, muted introduction is surely a lament of sorts - one might expect a more sombre piece. Instead, what we get is music of sinew and spirit, lit by sudden flares of energy and spurred on by tight and varied rhythms. The latter seem to combine the propulsive qualities of Shostakovich - sans the hysterical edge - with the loose-limbed exhilaration of Bernstein at his best.
Despite such broad comparisons - offered as a rough idea of character, nothing more - this is writing of quality and purpose; it’s also very well played and recorded. There are heartfelt moments of quietude that are simply gorgeous, and in the first movement listeners will easily pick up on the Ode to Joy quotation from Beethoven’s Ninth. I daresay there are other references, but that doesn’t make this a faltering or derivative work. I particularly admire Pohjola’s use of unusual colours and textures, and his deft handling of those almost Ivesian cross-rhythms in the fourth movement; the latter are thrillingly caught in this recording, which combines fine detail with spectacular range and bite.
After all those high jinks - what a glorious and triumphant tribute this is - the muted start to the Second Symphony might signal a change of mood. I was struck first by the variety and confidence of Pohjola’s writing - that growing, animated twitter over a grumbling bass - and second by the ravishing, harp-led passages that follow. There’s also a glitter and clarity here - hints of Ravel, perhaps - but it’s the sophisticated rhythms in the second movement that really tweak one’s ear. As for the orchestra, they play with a potent mix of gusto and precision; despite the atavistic thrills on display - goodness, that tam-tam and bass deum - Oramo stops it all from sliding into a bacchanalian frenzy.
There’s humour and a surprising lightness of touch as well; just sample the laid-back, almost jaunty, tunes that perk up the second movement. Then the music descends, almost imperceptibly, into the cinematic things-that-go-bump-in-the-night weirdness of the third. It’s back to big and very bold in the fourth - just listen to the delicious rasp of lower brass and that ferocious, Nielsen-like fusillade on the timps at the very end. It’s high-octane stuff, best played at high volume when the neighbours - and those of a nervous disposition - aren’t in earshot.
These are extremely accomplished and engaging symphonies that, being broadly tonal, will appeal to those who might otherwise feel intimidated by contemporary orchestral pieces. Moreover there’s a Puckish glee in much of Pohjola’s writing that really appeals to me; it’s certainly whetted my appetite for his other works, some of which have the most intriguing titles. I daresay Alba - buoyed by what I hope will be universally positive responses to this disc - will give us more. Lots more.
Cracking pieces, superbly played; a demonstration disc too.
Dan Morgan  

Cracking pieces, superbly played; a demonstration disc too.