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Toivo KUULA (1883–1918)
Festive March, Op. 13 (1910) [8:31]
South Ostrobothnian Suite No. 1, Op. 9 (1906-1909) [27:55]
South Ostrobothnian Suite No. 2, Op. 20 (1912-1913) [24:57]
Prelude and Fugue, Op. 10 (1909) [9:27]
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. 2015, Turku Concert Hall, Turku, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.com
ONDINE ODE1270-2 [70:50]

This is one of my 'innocent ear' reviews, the result of yet another late-night trawl through eClassical’s online catalogue. I’d not knowingly heard a note of this Finnish composer’s music, but looking at the track list and seeing Leif Segerstam at the helm I felt this release merited closer inspection. It’s the latest in Ondine’s series devoted to Kuula’s varied output. The Helsinki-based label Alba have also issued several discs of music by this composer, at least one of which has been reviewed on these pages. They're not alone, for Rob Barnett welcomed a collection of Kuula’s songs and orchestral pieces from Dutton (review).

It must have been difficult for Finnish composers of the early 20th-century to escape Sibelius’s very long shadow. One might surmise that Kuula, who became the master’s first pupil in 1909, would have found it harder than most; but seconds into the Festive March and it’s clear that even at this early stage Kuula has a fresh, inspiriting voice. Penned in Paris for the thirteenth anniversary of the Suomen Laulu choir back home, this march is deftly scored and winningly played. It’s a pleasing mix of solemnity and lightness, with none of the missteps one might expect from a relatively early opus.

Indeed, it would seem that compatriot Leevi Madetoja’s description of Kuula’s oeuvre as ‘self assured’ is only half the story. That’s borne out by the two South Ostrobothnian Suites, whose folkloric energy and rhythms are superbly realised by Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic. The three central sections of the first suite – Folk Song, Ostrobothnian Dance and Devil’s Dance – make use of folk material Kuula collected himself. Landscape and Song of Dusk are essentially tone paintings; the former, graced by Satu Ala’s lovely cor anglais solos, manages to suggest Sibelius without merely imitating him. The latter is a moodier daub, its timp rolls particularly tinglesome.

I find Segerstam a rather quirky conductor at times, but revisiting his thrilling account of Schnittke’s First Symphony reminded me of just how magnetic he can be (review). He’s certainly immersed in Kuula's music, which he shapes and projects with obvious care and affection. The Turku orchestra play well for him, and Ondine’s recording is excellent. The antiphonal horns at the start of the second suite – The Bride Arrives – are very well caught, and the piece ends on a perfectly pitched note of quiet jubilation. It gets better, with masterly woodwind writing – and playing – in Rain in the Forest. Once again Segerstam is both sensitive and proportionate. Gorgeous.

Those attributes are very much to the fore in the beautifully articulated Minuet that follows. I particularly like Kuula’s propensity for starting simply and becoming more complex; it’s so unobtrusively done and the material is never overworked. There’s charm too, notably in the wispy Dance of the Orphans, not to mention a raft of ghostly timbres in The Will-o’-the-Wisp. As always Kuula avoids the usual clichés, no mean feat in an overpopulated field such as this. Even more remarkable the 12-minute piece doesn’t outstay is welcome. No doubt that’s helped by Segerstam’s feel for the score’s dramatic nodes and his unerring ability to maintain tension and build genuine climaxes.

The concluding Prelude and Fugue is unusual in that the orchestral fugue, written in 1908-1909, precedes the prelude, which followed shortly thereafter. Far from being a rather dry, formal exercise the prelude has a restless energy and point that came as quite a surprise. The fugue seems more traditional at first, but then Kuula reverts to his party trick - artful elaboration. Not the most memorable piece here, but very accomplished nonetheless.

What a find; I look forward to exploring Kuula’s output in more detail.

Dan Morgan

Another review ...

Like, I supect, many others, I first made the acquaintance of Kuula’s orchestral music some four years back when Dutton released a CD of various works including the Second South Ostrobothnian Suite and the Prelude and Fugue as well as a collection of orchestral songs conducted by Martyn Brabbins. I was disappointed to see that this new disc included a second performance of the Suite, which would inevitably involve a degree of duplication for those who (like myself and Rob Barnett, reviewing the Dutton release for this site) were impressed with an initial acquaintance with Kuula and wished to extend their horizons further; but it appears that the Dutton CD is no longer readily available, so this compilation now has the field effectively to itself. And those whose knowledge of the composer extends no further than his songs and smaller works really should make the acquaintance of this music while this disc remains in the catalogues. In fact more than half the contents of this CD comprise what would appear to be the first recorded versions of the Festive March and the first of the Ostrobothnian Suites although cautiously Ondine make no such claims.

For those who have yet to make the acquaintance of Kuula’s music, however, this disc is to be thoroughly recommended. It is always tempting to think that any composer whose music is little-known deserves their fate to some extent; if their contemporaries were unimpressed with their output, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that future generations will find reason to disagree with that verdict. But in the case of Kuula, who died young as the result of a bar-room brawl (he was a heavy drinker), his contemporaries hardly had time to come to terms with his music before his death; and those, such as Sibelius (at one time his teacher), who were in a position to judge were highly impressed with his output. Apart from various sets of incidental music, there is a decided shortage of orchestral music on which to base a view – his first symphony remained unfinished at the time of his death – and this disc does contain all the non-theatrical music which he composed in the orchestral medium.

The Festive March which opens the disc is a good rollicking piece of ceremonial music, rather similar in feel to an Elgar Pomp and Circumstance. It appears to be have been originally a choral work, with words included in the central section to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Suomen Laulu Choir in 1910; but it works well as a purely orchestral piece. The two Ostrobothnian Suites, with their roots in Finnish folk material, have clear echoes of Sibelius; and the cor anglais solo in the opening Landscape movement (finely played by Satu Ala) has very decided debts to the Swan of Tuonela. The Folk song, scored for strings alone, has hints of Grieg’s Death of Aase from Peer Gynt and rises to a fine emotional climax. The two dances that follow are less distinctive, but the final Song of Dusk is more in the nature of a miniature tone poem lasting over nine minutes.

The second suite, as those familiar with the Brabbins recording can testify, is a more substantial work including two further miniature tone poems in the form of Rain in the forest and The will-o’-the-wisp, the latter being the longest single piece on this disc. The influence of impressionism is clearly felt here, as in the Song of Dusk from the first suite, but the overall sound is more that of Delius (himself a frequent visitor to Scandinavia) than Debussy or the French school. The opening of the suite comes heralded with Karelia-like horn fanfares; and the Minuet, not at all classical, features woodwind bird-calls which have the flavour of Lemminkäinen about them. The final Prelude and Fugue, far from an academic exercise, starts delicately but soon develops all the rumbustious panache of Bach orchestrations by Elgar or Stokowski. But it would be all too easy to define Kuula by the hints of other composers to be found in his music, without acknowledging the singular nature of his own inspiration and his very distinctive voice. His early death robbed us of the chance to see how he would have developed in later years, but there is already a decidedly original sensibility at work here. Will-o’-the-wisp in particular has a really original approach to its subject, looking forward to such later composers as Bax, Bartók and even the Norwegian Geirr Tveitt (another composer long overdue for popular discovery). Kuula accepted that individual movements from his suites could be extracted for separate performance, and this substantial piece in particular could well establish itself as a concert favourite.

Comparisons of Segerstam with Brabbins in the Suite and the Prelude and Fugue show that the new release is slower than the earlier one in every track with the exception of the second and fourth movement of the second suite, where the durations are more or less identical. The differences elsewhere can be quite startling – over a minute and a half in the final movement Will’o’-the-wisp – but at no point does Segerstam’s more measured approach seem excessive. At all events, music of this quality can easily tolerate different interpretations, and the absence of the Brabbins disc from the current listings makes comparisons somewhat irrelevant. As I have remarked recently when reviewing Segerstam’s cycle of Sibelius incidental music with same orchestra, the playing and the recording are both superlatively good. For those who missed the Brabbins release and have an interest in Finnish music of the early twentieth century, this disc is an absolute must; and its contents, comprising as they do all of Kuula’s purely orchestral scores, have an obvious attraction in their own right.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: David Barker (Recording of the Month)



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