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Erkki MELARTIN (1875-1937)
Traumgesicht, Op. 70 (1910) [16:37]
Marjatta, Op. 79 (1914) [13:35]
Music from the ballet The Blue Pearl (Sininen helmi), Op 160 (1928-30) [26:10]
Soile Isokoski (soprano)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. April-July 2015, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
Finnish text and English translation included (Marjatta)
ONDINE ODE 1283-2 [56:22]

Over the years one of the recurring pleasures of reviewing for MusicWeb International has been the opportunity for new discoveries. I confess that until I received this disc for review I was completely ignorant not only of the music of Erkki Melartin but of his very existence. However, a quick search on the site established that we have considered recordings of his music before. In particular, Lance Nixon welcomed a set of the composer’s six symphonies in 2006 (review). Those recordings, also issued by Ondine, were made by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and Leonid Grin between 1992 and 1994. A few years later BIS recorded his opera Aino, which was reviewed by Rob Barnett. There have also been a number of individual works that have appeared in mixed programmes.

Here Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra offer a nicely contrasted programme of Melartin’s orchestral music. I encountered this team not long ago in the Sibelius symphonies (review). Their live recordings of those masterpieces impressed me a lot so my hopes were high before I started to play this disc. I’m delighted to say that the quality of the performances was fully up to my expectations.

For the benefit of those who, like me, may not have encountered Melartin previously some brief biographical details may be helpful. For this information I draw on the excellent booklet notes by Tuire Ranta-Myere and Jani Kyllönen. He studied initially in his native Finland and then for two years (1899-1901) with Robert Fuchs in Vienna. Returning home, Melartin became a leading figure in Finnish musical life as a composer, conductor and, very importantly, as Rector and composition teacher at the Helsinki Conservatory (1911-1936). He was instrumental in raising the money that enabled that institution to construct a purpose-built headquarters in 1932 in which the Conservatory — renamed the Sibelius Academy in 1939 — still has its home. Among Melartin’s principal compositions are the symphonies, composed between 1903 and 1924, and the opera mentioned above; a Violin Concerto (1913 - recorded on Ondine ODE923-2); and four string quartets (1896-1910).

The earliest of the three works on Hannu Lintu’s programme is the tone poem, Traumgesicht. This was composed in quite a hurry when the opportunity arose to have one of his orchestral works performed in St. Petersburg. It appears that Melartin drew on incidental music that he had written for a play in 1905. It’s described in the notes as an “impressive poem of nocturnal visions”. I agree with that verdict but the quality of the music was not enough to prevent the work from sliding into obscurity: after a performance in 1932 the score slumbered on the library shelves until Hannu Lintu revived it in 2013. I’m jolly glad he did. The piece is very imaginatively scored – Melartin handles a large orchestra with assurance - and thematically attractive. The score contains several powerful passages and also some episodes that are much more delicate in character; these latter are beautiful and romantic. So far as I can judge, the piece being new to me, it receives a super performance here.

I don’t detect much similarity between Traumgesicht and the music of Melartin’s great compatriot, Sibelius. However, there are one or two parallels between Marjatta and Sibelius’s Luonnotar. Two things link these scores. One is that both set verses from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. The other is the great Finnish soprano, Aino Ackté for whom both pieces were written. She requested a substantial work with orchestral accompaniment from Sibelius in 1913. Ackté gave the first performance of Luonnotar in the unlikely surroundings of Gloucester Cathedral at the 1913 Three Choirs Festival. The following year she made a similar request of Melartin and the result was Marjatta.
The text relates the story of how Marjatta consumes a cranberry which then transforms itself into her son who was baptised as the king of Karelia by an old holy man. The second part of the piece is dominated by a monologue for Väinämöinen. The music is particularly noteworthy for the very skilled orchestral writing, especially in the first part of the score, and also for the way in which the vocal part seems to be composed with natural speech rhythms very much in mind. I found the scoring to be full of imaginative colouring. The soprano part is often very expressive and Soile Isokoski sings it superbly. Her voice is beautifully produced and her diction is so clear that even though I have no knowledge at all of Finnish I could follow the text and translation without difficulty. This is a very impressive composition.

The three-act ballet The Blue Pearl (Sininen helmi) is Melartin’s last major score; it’s also the first full-length Finnish ballet. The action takes place on a South Sea island where a sea monster has taken a Princess prisoner. The monster has a blue pearl in its crown which gives it powers over the forces of nature. A Prince is shipwrecked in a storm and succeeds in defeating the monster, winning the girl and the pearl in the process. Cue great rejoicing. The music presented here consists of eight numbers from the first two Acts, adapted by Hannu Lintu and Jani Kyllönen. It seems that it’s quite possible to extract numbers in this way since we are told in the notes that the ballet consists mostly of character dances rather than drama.

The music utilises a smaller orchestra than the other two works though there is room in the band for both a piano and a wind machine. Once again I’m struck by the melodic attractiveness of the music and, even more so, by the inventive scoring. The second of the numbers, ‘Danse de Nénuphares’ contains sensuous music. The number that follows depicts a storm – presumably the one which washes the Prince ashore. Here Melartin uses the wind machine but, to be honest, even without that addition his scoring depicts the tempest very vividly. There’s a beguiling and graceful ‘Pas de deux’ which includes a notable part for solo violin. ‘Poissons à voile’ (Sail fish) is orchestrated in a most subtle and inventive fashion. I particularly liked one passage in this movement in which a solo cello is accompanied by gently swirling woodwind. The selection of pieces ends with the Finale to Act II, an energetic and happy mazurka which rings down the curtain on this Melartin programme in splendid fashion.

Full marks to Ondine for this enterprising and excellent disc, which serves as an ideal introduction to the music of Erkki Melartin. The performances are top-notch and Laura Heikinheimo’s recording presents the sound of the orchestra – and Miss Isokoski – quite marvellously. The felicitous details of Melartin’s scoring register splendidly and the acoustic of the hall is conveyed most effectively. For a newcomer to this music, such as me, the notes offer an ideal introduction both to the composer and the music in question. If the idea behind this CD was to whet the appetite of collectors to investigate Melartin’s music further then it’s worked: I must get hold of Ondine’s set of his symphonies.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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