Leevi Madetoja is one of those composers – Mieczysław Weinberg is another – whose music I’ve been meaning to investigate for some time but have not got round to, chiefly because of other reviewing commitments. I missed the Chandos series of recordings by Petri Sakari, which were subsequently reissued as a set at an advantageous price (review
This new Ondine disc from John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is the follow-up to their previous release of music including the Second Symphony, which was reviewed
last year by Michael Cookson. It seemed to be a good opportunity for me to make the acquaintance of this Finnish composer.
Some brief background information may be useful here for those who, like me, are coming new to this music. Madetoja studied at the Conservatoire and the University in Helsinki between 1906 and 1910. During the last two years of that period he was a pupil of Sibelius who later, at the time he began to write his First Symphony, wrote to encourage him in the venture. Thereafter he studied abroad, in Paris, Vienna and Berlin before returning to Finland in 1912. Thereafter he made a living first as a conductor and subsequently as a composer and teacher.
His First Symphony, which is cast in three movements, is a concise affair. The opening of its first movement has a delightful freshness and the rhythms, which Storgårds and his orchestra articulate very well, have a genuine spring in their step. A slower episode (1:26–2: 26) is most alluring after which the deft music resumes with the orchestra nicely on its toes. There’s a welcome revisiting of the slower material before the end of the movement. It struck me that an openness of style and texture was the main feature of this disarming music. The central slow movement has definite Sibelian overtones, whether it be in the quiet, economically scored passages or at the movement’s climax. The debt to Sibelius is even more overt in the swift, fleeting music with which Madetoja opens his finale. Once again the music is engaging and sounds very well written as well as well-imagined for the orchestra. The last couple of minutes feature a slow moving, majestic processional which underlines the confidence that permeates the composer’s first essay in symphonic form. Overall, this is an impressive and confident first symphony and I found it most attractive.
I’ve not yet heard Madetoja’s Second Symphony of 1918, which is the longest of his three symphonies, so I can’t judge fully the evolutionary progress between the First and Third symphonies. The Third was begun while he was in France in 1925 and finished the following year on his return to Finland. We are told in the notes that the process of composition was ‘troublesome’ but, to be honest, I don’t think you’d pick that up from listening to the music. The easy, pastoral elegance of the introduction to the first of its four movements certainly doesn’t betray any creative birth pangs, nor does the nimble, cheerful Allegretto
that follows. This is sprightly music and it’s given a sprightly performance. Though Madetoja is not afraid to exploit the full resources of the orchestra at climaxes, it’s the transparency and lightness of his textures that give the music its principal appeal.
The slow, tranquil close to the first movement is a very effective preparation for the Adagio
second movement, which is a fine, dignified piece. The scherzo that follows is the longest movement in the work. It’s lively and extrovert and the Helsinki Philharmonic’s delivery is crisp and alert. I thought this was delightfully engaging music. The finale includes an episode that is a waltz in duple time: it sounds odd but it works. This movement, too, is mainly outgoing and lively but after an imposing passage from brass and timpani the movement – and the symphony – achieves a surprisingly subdued end.
The Okon Fuoko
suite derives from a ballet pantomime based on a libretto by the Danish author, Poul Knudsen. The principal character in this magical tale is the eponymous Japanese puppet maker. Madetoja began work on the score in 1925 – so the score is contemporaneous with the Third Symphony – finishing it two years later. The stage work itself was a flop though the music was more warmly received. It appears that Madetoja planned to extract three orchestral suites from his complete score but only completed this one. To my ears this music is quite different in tone and timbre to the two symphonies, especially in the use of the percussion, which is a good deal more prominent in this score. The music is colourful and inventive and I enjoyed it very much. I note, however, that Dan Morgan, who has heard the rival Chandos set, felt that Storgårds’ performance was eclipsed by that of Petri Sakari (review
), which is another reason why I intend to acquire that set also.
I enjoyed this disc very much indeed and I’m very glad that at long last I’ve become acquainted with the music of Leevi Madetoja. He may not match the stature of his great teacher, Sibelius, but it would seem from the contents of this disc his music, which is unfailingly attractive, is well worth hearing. It’s a little hard for me, a Madetoja neophyte, to judge but it appears to me that the present performances are expert; certainly the orchestral playing is very good indeed. I’ve not heard too many Ondine discs but on those that have come my way I’ve always been impressed with the natural clarity and truthful balance of their recordings and this present SACD is no exception.
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