Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Rakastava (1893/98) [7:04]
Finlandia, Op. 26, No. 7 (1899/1900, arr. choir 1941) [2:49]
Kaija SAARIAHO (b. 1952)
Nuits adieux (1991/96) [11:42]
Riikka TALVITIE (b. 1970)
Kuun Kirje (2003) [5:49]
Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1925-2016)
Canticum Mariae virginis (1978) [8:08]
Canción de nuestro tiempo (1993) [16:10]
Orpheus singt (2016) [6:46]
Jukka LINKOLA (b. 1955)
Mieliteko (1999) [12:43]
SWR Vokalensemble/Marcus Creed
rec. SWR Funkstudio Stuttgart, Germany, June/July 2016
Texts in Finnish, French, German, Latin, and Spanish with translations in German
SWR CLASSIC SWR19031CD [71:46]
Marcus Creed and his Stuttgart-based SWR Vokalensemble continue their series of country-themed choral works with this programme devoted to Finland. Earlier volumes were devoted to music of Italy, America, and Russia and issued on the Hänssler label. I reviewed the America disc and also have the Russia one in my collection. Whereas those earlier volumes contained translations in both German and English, Finland has only the texts along with German translation. This is unfortunate for English speakers, especially since most of the works on the CD are little known to many listeners I would guess. To make matters worse, the notes in the booklet are very brief and hardly adequate in describing either the composers or the works. It is a pity, since the performances themselves seem excellent. Creed’s well-trained choir impresses as before with their nigh on perfect tuning, exemplary balance, and clear diction.
The programme both begins and ends with Sibelius, the most familiar music on the disc. Rakastava (“The Lover”) with its text from a collection of Finnish folksongs, Kanteletar, depicts wonders of nature in its three-section form. It is a hauntingly beautiful piece with a notable use of counterpoint in the second section, “the Path of the Beloved.” Sibelius later orchestrated the work (1911) and that version is somewhat longer than the original. I like them both, but particularly the choral one as performed here. The ubiquitous Finlandia—rather its middle hymn section—is likewise exquisitely rendered by the SWR Vokalensemble.
After Sibelius, Rautavaara is undoubtedly the most famous Finnish composer and is represented here by three of his shorter works for unaccompanied chorus. His most important choral work, though, is likely the hour-long Vigilia (All-Night Vigil in Memory of St. John the Baptist) that he composed in 1971. The Canticum Mariae virginis comes from the same period, after the composer abandoned the serialism of his early career and began to focus on a mystic dimension with a distinctly tonal basis. The Canticum combines three ancient texts on the Virgin Mary and presents them vertically in the manner of medieval tropes. Although the music contains many fifths and fourths in a generally medieval soundscape, there is also ten-part canon with noticeable counterpoint that makes the piece seem old and modern at the same time.
The second, and longest, Rautavaara work on the disc is the three-part Canción de nuestro tiempo, based on poems of Federico García Lorca from the 1920s and 1930s the composer felt were still relevant in the 1990s. The opening movement, Fragmentos de agonia (Fragments of Agony) depicts the harsh world of the industrial society and war, and employs surrealist imagery. Next is a meditation, Meditacíon primera y última, and the third movement is Ciudad sin sueño (City Without Dreams) subtitled “Sarajevo Nocturne.” Rautavaara associated the latter’s violent imagery with the atrocities of Bosnia taking place then. By some measure, the Canción de nuestro is the most impressive work on the programme, at least after Rakastava. Very moving and virtuosic by turn, it uses the full range of voices including demanding parts for the basses and tenors and vibrant solos by alto and soprano, particularly in the last section as they depict the horrors of war with piercing cries over the pulsation of the choir. Like most of the music on this disc, I had not heard this piece before. It is fully of the quality of Vigilia. The third Rautavaara work is the short Orpheus singt for four-part mixed chorus the SWR Vokalensemble requested from Rautavaara and which is one of his last compositions. It was actually based on a work he composed as long ago as 1953, inspired by Rilke’s 1922 Sonnets to Orpheus. Beginning with a five-note whole-tone scale by the soprano and tenor voices, it is interwoven with polyphony throughout.
The remaining works on the CD are from living composers, the most renowned of whom is Kaija Saariaho. I have heard more about her than my actual acquaintance with her work. Based on Nuits adieux here, I am not all that impressed with her style. The piece is supposed to depict “night farewells,” but is basically an exercise in sound effects. There is much whispering, breathing, moaning, and sighing, and some chanting and talking. I could find little attractive in it, though the choir seems to be enjoying it. Gubaidulina, for one, puts such devices to better use in her works, which I enjoy a great deal more.
The work of the youngest composer represented here, Riikka Talvitie, is far more musical and interesting than Saariaho’s. Her eight-part Kuun kirje (Moon Letter) is a brief choral setting on a poem by Eeva-Liisa Manner having “dense polyphony alternating with terraced cluster buildups that make time stand still,” according to the CD notes. Jukka Linkola’s Mieliteko (Desire), on the other hand, borrows from popular culture—particularly jazz. Its five movements are based on traditional songs overlaid with syncopated rhythms, blue notes, and close harmony. This attractive work would be a perfect vehicle for the King’s Singers, and the choir here are obviously relishing the music.
Overall, there is much to enjoy in the variety of the music and to praise in the performances of the choir on this CD. As most of the selections were new to me, I would have benefited greatly from having English translations of the texts as well as substantial notes on the works and their composers.