This release has been reviewed
by Dan Morgan, and I am very happy to agree with him in his
positive reception of this as a very fine disc indeed. The recording
is stunning and the performances equally so.
Music hits people in different ways at different times, and
my first hearing of the opening movement of the Symphony
No. 1 was that there was a very great deal of not very
much happening for a very long time. This was rather an unfair
audition through my car stereo, which has to battle against
all kinds of other ambient noises even when standing still in
a traffic jam, but even at home with all SACD channels going
I struggle to find much connection with the music. It moves
on nicely, builds in a post-Shostakovich way and throwing in
many of his tricks of orchestration, but it doesn’t do much
for me at all. The second movement is a single atmosphere, and
a very beautiful one. A warm bed of dense sustained string chords
support elegiac wind solos, an unsettling feeling of underlying
darkness suggested by quiet percussion interjections, some of
the bell effects in which are quite magical. The wind solos
take over in a transition to more muscle-playing from the orchestra.
This is all very grand and functions as a fine musical hair-dryer,
but again, what purpose is served – where is the emotional heart
which transports us into new worlds of discovery?
I must be missing something here. Such finely crafted music
played with such commitment and panache should stir something
somewhere, but try as I might I find it hard to get worked up
about the Symphony No. 1. The ‘loud bits’ are busy
without being involving, the central movement of suspended repose
remarkable, but for my palette it takes me not much further
than so may pre-existing generic orchestral stereotypes.
Hope springs eternal, and the moody opening of the Symphony
No. 2 draws the listener into worlds where the imagination
can take hold and create its own narratives and associations.
Like the central movement of the first symphony, sustained strings
are contrasted with more active wind parts, in this case engaging
in Lutoslawski style dialogues – perhaps with a touch of the
Charles Ives Unanswered Question but without that piece’s
uncompromising sense of identity and character. There is a massive
build-up to about 5:30, from under which the rug is pulled rather
brutally. I would have preferred a more logical consequence
– a heartrending cataclysm born from the materials laid out
earlier. As it is, we find ourselves bumping around inside padded
cell walls wondering if the composer will be able to find a
way out. I don’t feel he does though, and we end up the movement
playing with the corpses of dead insects on the floor.
Oh dear, I’m not being very positive, and I don’t want to be
mean and unsupportive. The trouble is, every time I come back
to this music the word ‘clever’ hits me between the eyes, yes,
like a cleaver. The reasons are not technical, as all of the
important boxes are ticked: sense of craft and tradition, superb
orchestration, clarity of idiom and style, bags of event, contrast,
development, sense of shape and tension and climax and, and,
and… I don’t demand big tunes and won’t criticise these pieces
for not having them, and I am full of admiration for the aura
of high quality pumping out of every aspect of this production.
These symphonies are ‘good’ in every way, and all of my remarks
should be taken as entirely subjective – what doesn’t float
my boat may have yours surfing all the way to Nirvana. I think
part of the problem may be that there are lots and lots and
lots and lots of ideas, but frequently too many per minute to
allow any one of them to make any kind of point, and too many
questions about their point in the first place.
These symphonies by no means offer the kind of complexity which
you would associate with the late lamented Elliott Carter, and
this music isn’t difficult in that way. Putting on my professorial
hat and asking the tough questions I have to find reasons, so
here’s my analysis. Take any one distinct musical idea – from
all of the denser passages and most of the other ones as well,
and examine it under a really big magnifying glass. What does
it do – in and of itself? Would you be able to expand and make
something marvellous from it? Then, if you took it away would
it make a difference? Take any moment, go on… there – now see
what I mean?
Like numerous radio stations and a certain pop song, I just
can’t find what I’m looking for, not here, sorry.
see also review by Dan
Morgan (Recording of the Month)
music review. There’s also a CD of Pohjola’s string quartets
1-4 ALBA ABCD 334.