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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.
ALBA ABCD 339 [image] [60:49]

Experience Classicsonline

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.
Dominy Clements

see also review by Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)
Chamber music review. There’s also a CD of Pohjola’s string quartets 1-4 ALBA ABCD 334.
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