Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928)
see end of review for details
Finnish Radio Chamber Choir/Timo Nuoranne
Original texts and English translations included
ONDINE ODE1186-2Q [4 CDs: 64:14 + 72:08 + 72:00 + 70:56]
Ondine has done a terrific job in recording the music of the man considered by many to be Finland’s most important composer after Sibelius. Here, in this generously-filled set they bring together a substantial amount of his choral music. These are reissues of previous releases so one important recent work could not be included. What I presume will be the first recording of Rautavaara’s Missa a cappella, which received its UK première at the Cheltenham Music Festival in summer 2012 (review), will be released by Ondine in spring 2013. I note, however, that the short Credo, though penned as long ago as 1972, has been incorporated into the new Mass. This piece opens the second disc in this collection.
All these recordings were made in collaboration with the composer and they present a pretty full picture of his choral compositions covering an extended period between 1957 and 2000.
Rautavaara has achieved a significant worldwide reputation over the last few decades but his promise was recognised by a master when he was in his twenties. In 1955 the Koussevitzsky Foundation marked the 90th birthday of Sibelius by awarding a scholarship in his honour which would allow a young Finnish composer of his choice an opportunity to study in the USA. Sibelius selected Rautavaara and two years of study with Vincent Persichetti at the Juilliard was the result. In the booklet we are told that choral music has been part of his output since the 1950s. Rautavaara says he “never considered [himself] a choral composer in particular” but Kimmo Korhonen includes in his extensive booklet note the following observation: “In terms of the number of works written, choral music is the most extensive category in his output, and it is highly diverse in terms of style, expression and content.” The diversity of Rautavaara’s choral output is well illustrated in this set.
Three substantial works dominate the set. Vigilia is a setting of the Orthodox All-Night Vigil, comprising Vespers (1971) and Matins (1972). In fact, what is recorded here is a shortened concert version of the score, made by the composer in 1986. This is very different from, say, Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil for we are told that Rautavaara deliberately eschewed the Romantic tradition of Orthodox liturgical writing and went back to original Byzantine chant. The result is a deeply impressive work for soloists and a cappella choir. Vigilia strikes me as a composition of great sincerity and eloquence and while the composer may have gone back to Byzantine chant he has refracted that through late twentieth-century musical techniques. The score consists of 34 movements, several of them very short, and Rautavaara’s achievement is to introduce a considerable degree of musical variety while remaining within the discipline of music that does not jar with the Orthodox tradition. The choral writing is consistently resourceful and interesting. Among many movements that caught my ear was the Troparion in Vespers (No. 12) in which we hear firstly a lovely mezzo solo followed by a soprano solo, all against a background of choral whispering. The result is a movement that is as fascinating as it is lovely. A little earlier the Evening Hymn (No. 7), which consists largely of homophonic choral writing, is very beautiful. The Katabasis movement in Matins (No 30) is, in fact, the Magnificat. This is the most substantial movement in terms of length and it’s a very interesting setting. Incidentally, a couple of the movements, Psalm of Invocation and Evening Hymn, have been published separately and are included as individual items on Disc two in this collection. I should imagine that this is very taxing music but the performance by the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir under Timo Nuoranne is absolutely superb. The various soloists all sing very well and special mention should be made of Jyrki Korhonen, whose cavernous, imposing bass voice is ideal for this music.
Disc four brings two more substantial works, this time both accompanied by orchestra. On the Last Frontier is a setting, in English, of words by Edgar Allan Poe. In effect it’s a substantial seascape for chorus and orchestra, described in the notes as “a fresco-like work painted in broad strokes, dominated by the opulent sonority of Rautavaara’s late synthesis style and swelling oceanic textures.” The tone is set by a vast, powerful paragraph for orchestra alone, which acts as the Introduction. At 5:42 this accounts for nearly a quarter of the length of the work and, indeed, that underscores the importance of the orchestra throughout the piece. The choral writing, much of which is homophonic, is by no means lacking in interest but the chorus part is, perhaps, broad-brush in nature by comparison with the often-teeming orchestral textures underneath. Is this a metaphor, perhaps, with the choir representing mankind travelling on the surface of the ocean while the orchestra represents the tumultuous life and currents under the surface of the sea? Delius and even Vaughan Williams came to my mind on occasions as I listened to the work. It’s an imposing piece and the performance under Leif Segerstam could fairly be described as fervent.
I honestly don’t know what to make of True & False Unicorn . It sets poems by the American poet and film maker, James Broughton (1913-1999). I suspect - though this isn’t explicitly stated in the notes - that all the texts come from Broughton’s 1957 collection of poems which bear the same title. Apparently Rautavaara encountered the poetry in the 1950s and conceived an immediate desire to set them to music but did not do so until prompted by a commission for a work for chamber choir, speakers and orchestra in 1971. The work was revised more than once, the final revision in 2000, which is heard here, dispensing with passages of electronic music - orchestral interludes, one at the start of each of the four sections, replaced the electronics. The resulting work is a strange, intriguing score. Part of the strangeness, I’m sure, arises because I don’t know what Broughton’s aim was in these poems, nor what was Rautavaara’s intention in setting them. Perhaps the Finnish composer views this work as a whimsical exercise; certainly a few of the movements, such as the ninth and the eleventh, seem firmly tongue-in-cheek. Some of the movements involve a form of Sprechgesang or Sprechstimme. Usually one of the speaker soloists joins the choir in these sections though the choir alone has one such section (No 18). These sections are emphatically not to my taste though other listeners may respond more positively to the spiky, quirky nature of these movements. In sharp contrast, some of the movements are very beautiful such as movement four, which has gentle, radiant music for the choir, or movement nineteen, which consists of chaste, simple music for women’s voices, lightly accompanied. By design Rautavaara employs a variety of musical styles in this score, including jazz, spirituals and even a skit on God save the Queen. As I say, it’s an intriguing work with which I’ve yet to come to terms.
There are a good number of shorter works, most of them a cappella, on discs two and three and these cover a wide spectrum of styles and genres. Disc two includes several sacred works, including what we are told is, astonishingly, the first-ever setting of the Magnificat ever written in Finland. It’s a five-movement composition and I’m not sure that it would suit liturgical use. The music is consistently interesting and contains many lovely passages. Canción de nuestro tiempo, though it comes on disc two, is a secular work. It’s a setting, in Spanish, of three poems by Lorca and much of the music is powerful and intense. The first of the three settings, ‘Fragmentos de agonia’, includes an impassioned mezzo-soprano solo, splendidly sung here. The last piece, ‘Ciudad sin sueño’ (‘Sleepless city’), was written at the time of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict and actually bears the subtitle ‘Nocturno del Sarajevo’.
Disc three brings us more Lorca settings in the form of the earlier Lorca Suite but this time the poems are in Finnish translation. This is on a less ambitious scale than the later Lorca work but though the poems - and the music - are more compact the music is no less powerful. The music contained on disc three is, perhaps, more of a mixed bag than anywhere else in the collection. The works range widely. On the one hand we have Praktisch Deutsch, which is a four-movement work in which the choir speaks words from a German phrase-book. Frankly, I find the results hideous but others may react more positively. The same is true - perhaps even more true - of Ludus verbalis, a mercifully short four-movement piece in which individual German pronouns are spoken by the choir: I’ll not be listening to that again - life is too short! On the other hand we have the resourceful, eloquent writing of Katedralen and the fine Rilke setting, Die erste Elegie. Those are much more to my taste, as is Halavan himmean alla (‘In the shade of the willow’). This three-movement work is an adaptation for choir of three solo items from Rautavaara’s opera Aleksis Kivi (1996). These are very beautiful.
I suppose it’s inevitable that in a collection running to some four-and-a-half hours of music there are a few pieces that one doesn’t regard as favourably as the rest. However, as I hope has been evident from the above remarks, Rautavaara’s choral music leave an impression that is, for the most part, very positive indeed. He writes extremely effectively for voices and has a remarkable and inventive ear for sonorities - the latter a trait that’s readily apparent also in the orchestral scores by him that I’ve heard. His admirers will probably already own some or all of these recordings but anyone who has some of Rautavaara’s orchestral pieces in their collection would be well advised to add this set.
The performances, mainly by the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir, are consistently very fine and the recorded sound is excellent throughout. The documentation is exemplary, including a very useful set of notes and all the texts with English translations. The only complaint I’d have about the booklet is that the typeface is very small and somewhat faint; I wouldn’t point this out were it not for the fact that it makes it hard to follow the Finnish words. That, however, is the only cavil about a compelling release that continues Ondine’s doughty championship of Finland’s leading living composer.
A compelling release that continues Ondine’s doughty championship of Finland’s leading living composer.
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Vigilia (1971/1986) [64:14]
Credo (1972) [4:19]
Canticum Mariae Virginis (1978) [7:30]
Herran rukous (1973) [2:30]
Two Psalms (1968) [3:47]
Magnificat (1979) [16:04]
Nattvarden (1963) [3:25]
Ave Maria (1957) [2:56]
Missa duodecanonica (1963) [2:09]
Rakkaus ei koskaan häviä (1983) [2:30]
Legenda (1985) [2:42]
Marjatan jouluvirsi (1976/1995) [2:44]
Joulun virsi (1953/1978/1995) [1:34]
Psalm of Invocation (1972) [1:53]
Evening Hymn (1972) [1:53]
Canción de nuestro tiempo (1993) [14:49]
Halavan himmean alla (1998) [10:57]
Lähtö (1975) [1:41]
Morsian (1975) [2:53]
Praktisch Deutsch (1969) [6:11]
Och glädjen den dansar (1993) [2:54]
Sommarnatten (1975) [3:13]
Katedralen (1983) [16:50]
Lorca Suite (1973) [5:31]
Ludus verbalis (1957) [3:24]
Nirvana Dharma (1979) [8:30]
Die erste Elegie (1993) [9:01]
On the Last Frontier. A Fantasy for Chorus and Orchestra (1997) [24:01]
True and False Unicorn. A Tapestry of Voices (1971/2000) [46:41]
CD 1-2; 3 (tracks 1-3): Finnish Radio Chamber Choir/Timo Nuoranne
CD 3 (tracks 4-21): Finnish Radio Chamber Choir/Eric-Olof Söderström
CD 4 (track 1): Finnish Philharmonic Choir; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
CD 4 (tracks 2-21): Finnish Radio Chamber Choir; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Timo Nuoranne
rec. October 2010, Kerava Church (CD 1); January 1999, St. John’s Church, Helsinki (CD 2, tracks 1-24); October 2002, St. John’s Church, Helsinki (CD 2, tracks 25-27, CD 3, tracks 1-3); April-May, 1995, Järvenpää Hall (CD 3, tracks 4 - 22); October 1998, House of Culture, Helsinki (CD 4, track 1); May 2002, House of Culture, Helsinki (CD 4, tracks 2 - 21)