Leevi MADETOJA (1887-1947)
Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 29 (1914-1916) [21:13]
Symphony No. 3 in A Major, Op. 55 (1925) [31:24]
Okon Fuoko Suite, Op. 58 (1930) [13:40]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. 19, 22-23 April 2013, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
ONDINE ODE 1211-2 [66:39]
‘Just the kind of second-rate music I like to hear,’ remarked a musician friend when I mentioned Madetoja. That’s not as damning or as flippant as it sounds, for music written deep in the shadow of more illustrious contemporaries can be very rewarding indeed. That’s certainly true of the Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja, forced to find his foothold in a musical landscape so completely dominated by Jean Sibelius. Even though the latter’s bold, striding presence is clearly discernible in Madetoja’s three symphonies and Kullervo that’s no reason to dismiss these works as ‘Sibelius-lite’. Once I was tempted to do just that, only to discover how short-sighted I’d been.
As so often it comes down to the passion and advocacy of musicians and the support of an adventurous record label. Indeed, it was conductor Petri Sakari and Chandos’s 1991-1992 recordings of Madetoja’s orchestral music - with the Iceland Symphony - that revealed just how distinctive and interesting this composer’s voice really is. Now we have John Storgårds, who first came to my attention with a performance of Kalevi Aho’s mighty Luosto Symphony (review). At last year's Proms he and the BBC Philharmonic gave us a fine Korngold Symphony in F sharp; there's also a keenly awaited cycle of Sibelius symphonies, also with the BBC Phil (Chandos CHAN10809).
Clearly Storgårds is a maestro to watch; as for the Helsinki Philharmonic - heard to great advantage in their recent all-Shostakovich disc with Vladimir Ashkenazy - they are grabbing headlines too (review). This confluence of talents should make for a compelling Madetoja cycle, the first instalment of which was warmly welcomed Michael Cookson (review). Technically these Ondine releases are also a cut above; in fact that’s partly why I chose one of their Rautavaara discs as my Recording of the Year 2013 (review).
Madetoja recordings may not be two a penny, but the pioneering Sakari set is well worth the few shekels it costs. These are eloquent and thoughtful readings, well played and captured in vintage Chandos sound; in short, this is a collection to cherish (review). Sakari’s are the sort of proselytizing performances that drag this music out of the inhibiting shadows and into the light. Yes, these discs really are that good; given such a distinguished precedent Storgårds and his Helsinki band really do need to be at their peak.
The First Symphony gets a most ardent outing here; Storgårds is bold and incisive in the Allegro and those wistful harp tunes are delectably done. Ondine’s recording is just as forthright, yet it remains warm and spacious throughout. The dark, brooding Lento misterioso conjures the spirit of Sibelius from the sullen bedrock only to morph into a landscape of its own design; now broad and imperious, now light and lovely, this is memorable music that hides its relative youth very well. The finale is no less arresting; Storgårds ensures the heart of this symphony beats with a strong, steady pulse - just listen to those mobile pizzicati - and he builds breath-taking and craggy perorations at the close.
How does Sakari compare? He isn’t as impetuous in the outer movements, but in mitigation there’s a security of utterance that’s just astonishing for a composer under thirty. Sakari nurtures the long spans, and that makes for a rapt, seamless reading; Storgårds seizes the shorter ones and gives us a more urgent and visceral view of this score. Both are very persuasive, which is why I couldn’t possibly recommend one version over the other. No, you must have both.
Madetoja’s Third Symphony, begun in France and completed in Finland, wanders in a very different setting to that of the First. Perhaps wanders isn’t the right word, for there’s nothing aimless about this transparent and classically proportioned piece. The opening Andantino is both graceful and gracious, especially in Sakari’s firm but gentle grasp, and the Icelanders play with a wonderful blend of ardour and inwardness throughout. The Adagio is especially pliant, and Sakari’s lofty, far-sighted approach brings with it an ease - an authority, if you will - that’s deeply satisfying.
You might wonder why I defer so much to the Chandos recordings; well, that’s how high the bar has been set. Storgårds and his players vault it easily enough in the Andantino, albeit with less of Sakari’s athleticism. As before Storgårds focuses on the moment rather than the whole half hour, and while that has its appeal I much prefer Sakari’s longer view. I suspect if the audience at the work’s premiere had heard Storgårds they would have been less perplexed by Madetoja’s stylistic departures. Make no mistake this symphony isn’t remotely regressive, and both conductors give it real character and shape.
Storgårds phrases the Adagio well enough, although his reading - and Ondine’s more analytical recording - create stronger contrasts and extend Madetoja’s colour palette. Such immediacy is no bad thing - climactic moments are undeniably sonorous and thrilling - but Sakari’s cooler, more cerebral approach has its virtues too. That said, Storgårds trumps Sakari in the Allegro, and the HPO respond to his demands with commendable alacrity and edge. The finale, marked Pesante, dances darkly, its glorious bass weight balanced by silken upper strings and chattering woodwinds. It all ends with a series of imposing tuttis and a quiet, quirky sign-off.
Madetoja only managed to create one of the three projected suites from his ballet- pantomime Okon Fuoko (the ballet can be heard in full on Alba). Based on a conceit familiar from 19th-century French ballet it tells the story of a Japanese doll-maker and his come-to-life creation Umegave. The original work didn’t do well at its premiere in 1930, which critics insist had less to do with the music than the libretto. I have to state an outright preference for Sakari’s performance which, from its frisson-inducing start, has a theatrical heat and hum that simply eludes Storgårds and his orchestra. Frankly, the latter seem more than a little foursquare and rather rustic alongside the suave, metropolitan Sakari. The colourful Chandos recording - which is sensational in the tuttis - is just as subtle and sophisticated too.
That pretty much sums up my response to these performances; Sakari is elegant and refined - a perfect summation, perhaps, of Madetoja’s studies in various European capitals - while Storgårds’ scruff-of-the-neck readings should win new friends for composer and conductor alike. For that reason the Ondine disc is an ideal starting point for those who wish to explore Madetoja’s œuvre. Following that up with the Sakari set - a well-filled and very tempting bargain - will deepen one’s affection for this music and banish all doubts about its range and quality.
Fine performances of these two symphonies; Storgårds’ Okon Fuoko is no match for Sakari’s though.
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