Aarre Merikanto's stylistic and musical progress was far from straightforward. His studies in Germany brought him into contact with the music of Reger and Richard Strauss. This was supplemented when his further studies in Russia let him hear the music of Scriabin among others.
His early works were generally well received but gradually his music came to be deemed modernist - at least by Finland's musical standards of yore. Its critical neglect led the composer into such a deep crisis that he mutilated the score of his masterly Symphonic Study (1928). This was later painstakingly reconstructed by Paavo Heininen. He eventually opted for a rather more easy-going Neo-classicism and this style was to characterise most of his later scores although some of these are far from negligible.
The Second Symphony, subtitled “War Symphony”, was completed in late 1918. Earlier that year the composer has fought in the Finnish Civil War and been held prisoner from the end of February to April. His military training, however, continued for another two months and the composer was eventually discharged because he was the family's only son. This information is drawn from Jouni Kaipainen's excellent insert notes. He then set about writing the symphony and this was completed in a fairly short period. The music bears the imprint of the events which the composer went through during the Finnish Civil War but it is in no way programmatic. Rather it reflects different moods experienced by the composer. Thus the first movement Allegro energico opens with a strongly assertive section but the music remains as a whole rather ambiguous. Its forward thrust is not so much relieved by slower sections than rendered all the more menacing for all that the future may hold in stock. The second movement is a Scherzo with a slower central section. The outer sections are quite animated and parts of the thematic material may bring Vaughan Williams to mind whereas the central section recalls Sibelius. The movement ends unresolved and bridges immediately into a Largo that forms the emotional heart and contains the finest music of the entire work. It is a rather sombre meditation to which ominous trombone glissandos - something quite new in Finnish music of the time, as Kaipainen rightly remarks - add disturbingly. The fourth movement reverts to the extrovert mood of the opening of the first movement. The music is later filled with triumphant spirit that some may find a bit bombastic. The music, however, sometimes displays a playful energy hinting at things that Bliss would later write. Merikanto's Second Symphony is an ambitious piece of music on a large-scale written in urgency as if the composer wanted to close that chapter of his life. It is certainly a deeply and strongly personal utterance that deserves respect and consideration. The music has been said to be thickly - even too thickly - scored and it certainly is. A number of details might have been polished before reaching final form. Nevertheless this superb performance resoundingly establishes this work as entirely convincing. Merikanto's Second Symphony may be a flawed masterpiece but it definitely deserves to be heard. Incidentally Merikanto's First and Third Symphonies have been recorded by the same performers on Alba ABCD 336 reviewed here but I still have to hear them.
Fine as the Second Symphony is, the real gem in this release is the wonderful poem for soprano and large orchestra Ekho. This sets a poem by Koskenniemi based on the classical myth of Echo and Narcissus. This extraordinarily beautiful work belongs to Merikanto's most remarkable “period” in which he composed some of his finest music such as Pan (1924), Fantasy for Orchestra (1923) and the aforementioned Symphonic Study (1928). The music, by turns lushly impressionistic and surprisingly expressionist, is simply stunning and vindicates Merikanto as one of the greatest Finnish composers of his generation. The music reflects the various moods of the poem in an ever changing kaleidoscope of orchestral colours. If you love Sibelius' Luonnotar, then Merikanto's Ekho is for you. Let it also be said that the soprano's part is terribly taxing but Anu Komsi proves a formidable performer.
This very fine release not only completes Alba's set of Merikanto's symphonies (see earlier review) but also provide a superb opportunity to hear one of his unquestioned masterpieces. It’s worth the price of the disc alone although I again insist that the Second Symphony is well worth more that the occasional hearing. As is usual with this label’s presentation, recording and performances are up to their best standards. A splendid release.