RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Toivo KUULA (1883-1918)
Festive march, op. 13 (1910) [8:31]
South Ostrobothnian Suite No. 1, op. 9 (1906-09) [27:55]
South Ostrobothnian Suite No. 2, op. 20 (1912-13) [24:57]
Prelude and Fugue, op. 10 (1908/9) [9:27]
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. 2015, Turku Concert Hall, Turku, Finland
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from eClassical
ONDINE ODE12702 [70:50]
Toivo Kuula was from the generation following in the giant footsteps of Sibelius, a daunting prospect. Indeed, he was one of Sibelius's students in 1907, and there is obvious influence in the writing for strings and woodwinds. However, Kuula was more influenced by Finnish, in particular Ostrobothnian, folk music than Sibelius. In case your knowledge of Finnish geography is as limited as mine, Ostrobothnia is a province on the west coast, facing Sweden. The year of Kuula's death might suggest that he was a casualty of the Great War, but not so. He was notoriously hot-headed, and got into a drunken argument during celebrations at the end of the Finnish civil war and was shot.
The Festive March was written to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Suomen Laulu choir, and as such, it is perhaps surprising that it is purely orchestral. It has very definite Sibelian elements, and is appropriate grand - the notes describe it as solemn, which I don't hear at all.
Suite No. 1 has three folk tune-based movements, which are enjoyable for their tunefulness and simplicity, but it is the opening and closing movements, which are all-Kuula, that impress most. There are certainly Sibelian touches, the plucked strings under the brass that opens Landscape, but the delicacy of the scoring of the middle section led by the cor anglais is quite beautiful. Song of Dusk, which closes the work, also features a solo part for cor anglais, but it is the strings which have the lead role.
Suite No. 2 is similarly contrasted, with again three movements based on folk-tunes, while the others show the results of his studies in Italy, Leipzig and especially Paris. Rain in the Forest is very Debussian. Will-of-the-wisp which completes the work is a rather enigmatic name for music that is the most intense and dramatic, and also as long as the other four combined. That said, it is very fine music that has few Sibelian touches. The booklet describes it as Impressionistic, which to an extent it is, but for me, Rimsky-Korsakov comes to mind.
The Prelude and Fugue were written separately, the latter written first. The Fugue comes from his time studying with Enrico Bossi in Italy, and works up a fine head of steam by the end, very much in the mode of the Bach fugue orchestrations by such luminaries as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Schoenberg.
The Second Suite and the Prelude and Fugue have been recorded on a Dutton disc of a few years ago, which Rob Barnett described as "very impressive" (review). I haven't heard it, but I don't believe that it would surpass this. I note that in both works, the Dutton is far quicker: by four minutes in the Suite and two in the Prelude and Fugue. This doesn't strike me as necessarily a good thing, as I didn't have any sense of drag with the Ondine. While the BBC Concert Orchestra (for Dutton) is probably a better ensemble, the Turku Philharmonic has this style of music in its blood. If you already have the earlier recording, you will want this. If you don't and the idea of Sibelian-inflected works appeals, your choice will be between the all-orchestral Ondine and the mixed vocal and orchestral Dutton.
After writing so often about the poor treatment of downloads, especially in connection with booklets, I'm pleased to be able to report a "good news" story, though it didn't start out that way. When this appeared on the eClassical New Releases list, I was very irritated to find that the booklet was not provided. A quick check on other download providers gave the same story. I contacted eClassical to ask why this particular Ondine release should be missing its booklet, when others on their site did. I made the point that this was music by a little-known composer, and hence, the booklet was rather important. They promised to check with their supplier, which is not the label itself. I didn't hold out any great hopes, given reports from my colleagues on the track record of that particular supplier in dealing with other problems. Imagine my delight when eClassical got back to me a few days later to say the booklet was now available. They didn't indicate why it hadn't been there from the start, and I chose the diplomatic route of not asking.
The more I listen to this, the more I have enjoyed it, and I can see it ending up on the shortlist for my Recordings of the Year. What a shame there is not much more in Kuula's orchestral oeuvre.
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