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Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928-2016)
Rubáiyát - song-cycle for baritone and orchestra (2015) [18:10]
Into the Heart of Light (Canto V) for string orchestra (2012) [13:05]
Balada for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra (2014) [16:55]
Four Songs from the opera Rasputin (2012) [10:41]
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone)
Mika Pohjonen (tenor)
Helsinki Music Centre Choir
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgĺrds
rec. Helsinki Music Centre, April, November 2015. DDD
ONDINE ODE12742 [59:29]

Here are four works composed by the late Einojuhani Rautavaara towards the end of his life.

In total he composed five works for string orchestra to which he gave the title Canto. The earlier pieces were written in 1960, 1961, 1972 and 1992. The composer explained the additional title of Canto V by alluding – and I paraphrase – to the process by which a work of art gradually emerges, during creation, as light dawns on the creative artist. Much of the music in this piece is dominated by slow-moving, richly melodic lines, mainly in the violins. The warmth and richness of the material grows gradually in a most impressive way. The piece seems to me, as a non-string player, to be well laid out for a string orchestra and Rautavaara exploits the medium very effectively. The conclusion is interesting: the last word is left to a single cello, whose solo seems to appear from nowhere as a pleasing surprise for the listener. This is a fine work.

Balada for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra grew out of an aborted operatic project. Rautavaara planned to write an opera on the subject of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). Poor health prevented Rautavaara from seeing the project through to completion but he recycled some of the material into a concert work, Balada. I understand from Kimmo Korhonen’s useful notes that Rautavaara compiled his own selection of Lorca texts and I’m bound to say that I found the words rather difficult to follow in the sense that I didn’t really ‘get’ what the composite text was about, where it was leading and how it all hung together. The tenor is held back until midway through the piece, beginning to sing at 8:38. Prior to that the words have been the sole responsibility of the choir. I found the music – and its interrelation with the text – easier to follow in the second half of the work, once the tenor had been added to the mix. I’ll confess that my appreciation of the piece is restricted by my failure fully to comprehend the text. Perhaps eventually I’ll grasp the significance of it and then I’ll find much more in what is clearly a deeply-felt composition.

Because the Lorca opera was not completed Rasputin (2001-03) was Rautavaara’s last opera. From it he later drew two sets of choral songs, one for unaccompanied male choir (2007) and, five years later, the present set for SATB and orchestra. I don’t know where the individual songs fit into the opera but they seem to me to work as a concert piece. The second, ‘The day of vengeance’ is, as its title suggests, dark and threatening. Consequently, the contrast with ‘I fear not’, which follows, is very welcome. This is for female voices and the orchestration is light and delicate in texture. The most substantial song is the last one, ‘Shine, Zion, shine!’ Kimmo Korhonen draws attention to the “religious fervour” of the piece. The effect is akin to a revivalist processional, the music growing in volume and intensity. As the climax is reached the excitement is heightened by the use of deep tom-toms. At its height the sound of the huge ensemble seems to suggest a twenty-first century Boris Godunov. At that point, as the notes say, the music “dissolve[s] into near-chaos”.

Impressive though the other three pieces on this programme are I feel they are distinctly shaded by Rubáiyát. This was the result of a commission from London’s Wigmore Hall and it exists in two versions, one with piano accompaniment and the orchestral version here recorded. Whilst I should like to hear the piano version I fear that the magnificent orchestration may have spoiled me for life. Rautavaara has set five extracts from Omar Khayyam’s great work, using the rather free nineteenth century English translation by Edward Fitzgerald – also used by Granville Bantock. Rautavaara launches straight into his first setting but thereafter each of the poems is followed by a short orchestral interlude which paves the way for the next poem, both in terms of mood-setting and orchestral scoring.

Let me say at once that it is a very long time since I have been so taken with a piece of contemporary music. I was bowled over at the first hearing and subsequent listening has only increased my admiration. For one thing the orchestral scoring is miraculous. Though the vocal line consistently – and rightly – commands our attention, what is going on in the orchestra is no less fascinating, Rautavaara’s palette of orchestral colouring is richly inventive and the vocal line is borne along on a carpet – a magic carpet? – of ear-tickling sonorities. Moreover, the orchestration constantly complements the words and the flow of the vocal line in a way that is nothing short of masterly. One or two examples will have to suffice. The orchestral interlude before the third poem, Here with a Loaf of Bread, is given over entirely, so far as I can tell, to flutes and strings and the effect is diaphanous. In the fourth poem, We are no other than a moving row, Kimmo Korhonen rightly draws attention in the notes to the “translucent” orchestral textures. I agree, but for me the icing on the cake is Rautavaara’s inspired use hereabouts of the marimba.

To add to the delights of the orchestration Rautavaara’s vocal part is magnificent. From start to finish the words of each poem are borne aloft on a seemingly endless flow of melody. In the first poem, Awake! the melodic line is elevated and urgently poetic. The next three poems are more pensive and meditative in nature and in each Rautavaara seems uncannily to find the right way in which to flex his vocal line to enhance Khayyam’s words. One feature of the settings that should be mentioned is that, to the best of my recollection, Rautavaara never repeats so much as a word – unless, of course, the repetition was done by the poet himself. The final poem, Oh, make haste! is a meditation on eternity and here the music is particularly eloquent. It would be hard to imagine a better soloist than Gerald Finley. The entire score is a gift for his voice – was it written for him, I wonder? The line is often high-lying and time and again I was impressed by the marvellous quality of Finley’s top register. Throughout the whole compass of his voice his tone is wonderfully firm and full. Ondine print the words but, frankly, that’s almost unnecessary given the clarity of this singer’s diction. From start to finish he gives a superb performance.

Throughout the disc the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra plays marvellously. They are, I think, well versed in this composer’s music and it shows. The singing of the Helsinki Music Centre Choir is very fine while tenor Mika Pohjonen makes an excellent contribution in Balada. John Storgĺrds is an authoritative and sure-footed guide to these scores.

Ondine’s engineering is top-notch and the documentation can’t be faulted.

All four works on this CD are rewarding but the exceptional Rubáiyát, magnificently performed by Gerald Finley, is alone worth the price of the disc.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett (Recording of the month)



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