Olli VIRTAPERKO (b. 1973)
Romer's Gap (Version for amplified cello & sinfonietta) (2016) [28:43]
Multikolor (for baritone saxophone and orchestra) (2014) [16:39]
Ambrosian Delights (Version for knifonium & chamber orchestra) (2013) [27:05]
Perttu Kivilaakso (cello)
Joonatan Rautiola (baritone saxophone)
Jonte Knif (knifonium)
Jyväskylä Sinfonia/Ville Matvejeff
rec: 2016, Martti Talvela Hall, Mikkeli, Finland (Romer’s Gap, Multikolor); Hannikaissali Hall at JAMK University Music Campus, Jyväskylä, Finland (Ambrosian Delights)
Reviewed as a 16-Bit/44.1 kHz download
ONDINE ODE13052 [72:27]
Adding to a phenomenon to which I’ve previously referred, that of former rock musicians morphing into credible ‘art-music’ composers, here are three recent concertos from 44 year old musical chameleon Olli Virtaperko, erstwhile vocalist in Finnish agitprop rock band Ultra Bra (actually Swedish for ‘very good’ before you ask). Ultra Bra had unprecedented commercial success in their homeland during the late 1990s and early 2000s – interesting then that Virtaperko, also a cellist, found the time during this period to form Ensemble Ambrosius whose niche concern is the performance of rock music on early instruments: their outstanding ‘The Zappa Album’ (BIS-NL-CD -5013 -now 17 years old) offered thought-provoking arrangements of classic tracks by Frank of that ilk – it remains a favourite in our house.
The obvious eye-opener on the present issue concerns the featured solo instruments. Although Virtaperko is not the first composer to write a concertante work for amplified cello (the Australian Matthew Hindson’s superb In Memoriam springs immediately to mind) or baritone saxophone he breaks new ground with the work for knifonium, a kind of analogue synthesiser.
The amplified cello concerto Romer’s Gap takes its name from a missing link in our understanding of biological development during the overlap between the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, a 15 million year timeframe from which palaeontologists have gathered remarkably few fossils. What that has to do with this entertaining concerto is not mentioned in the composer’s brief note to this release, but I can report that he has tried to tap into modern electric guitar technique in tailoring the solo part for Perttu Kivilaakso, another genre-crosser, a stunning instrumentalist who plays in Apocalyptica, a ‘cello rock band’(!) hugely popular in Finland. There is certainly something earthy and granitic about his sound here, but the amplification provides ethereal and distorted sonics as well. This concerto has been nominated for the 2017 Teosto Prize, which is clearly a big deal in Finnish music. The citation issued by the jury describes the music thus: ”A concerto pure and consistent in style, stretching the dynamics to their limits. The work flows naturally between heavy distortion and symphonic beauty. The composition by Virtaperko allows the amplified cello to growl like a large animal.”
The work begins with chiming tubular bells announcing the pizzicato solo cello apparently tuning up before the piece explodes into life. There are some ear-bending distortion effects from the soloist as well as colourful writing for the orchestra which sounds much larger than a chamber group. Virtaperko’s writing for it is generous to a fault – every section gets its moment in the sun which is just as well, given that the amplified cello is the real ‘show-off’ here. Towards the end of the movement soloist Perttu Kivilaakso produces an array of quite extraordinary sounds from his instrument – it is almost impossible to distinguish the sounds from the feedback and distortion made by a riffing rock guitarist. The panel concludes with icy vibes, marimba and celesta coalescing against a gently gnomic string chord.
The central slow movement is the emotional centre of the work, lyrical yet otherworldly. Virtaperko’s orchestration is again skilful, the group producing an array of bright colours, judiciously and pointillistically deployed. The orchestral pizzicato writing frequently recalls that of Roberto Gerhard’s mature orchestral music. As the movement nears its conclusion the work begins to convince on a structural as well as sonic level. There’s more spellbinding guitar-hero posturing from Kivilaakso a minute into the finale, while the orchestral punctuation again benefits from some tactfully deployed percussion. Romer’s Gap is architecturally sound, always absorbing and frequently thrilling. It is a very different beast from another recent Scandinavian cello concerto, Tommie Haglund’s Flaminis Aura whose recent release on BIS provoked several critical plaudits, not least on this site. But Virtaperko’s work is equally compelling and Kivilaakso’s extraordinary contribution is quite beyond praise.
The baritone saxophone concerto Multikolor opens with a questioning episode for soloist – before it joins in an intense dialogue with the orchestral wind. Soloist Joonatan Rautiola is presented with a plethora of technical challenges: multiphonics feature early on in the work, together with the wind the combined ensemble produce uncanny accordion-like sounds. Much of Multikolor is slow and tentative, it adopts a rather spectralist posture; compositionally the moments of stasis that predominate across its 16 minute span may evoke Scelsi to some listeners’ ears. Multikolor is a concentrated work, less immediate than the Romer’s Gap but worthy of listeners’ perseverance. It is superbly rendered by both soloist and orchestra.
I am far less convinced by the collage-like Ambrosian Delights which concludes the disc. This features the retro-like delights of a knifonium, an analogue synthesiser which has nothing to do with cutlery but is named after its inventor Josef Knif, the soloist here and one of the composer’s partners-in-crime in the Ensemble Ambrosius. Readers can see an image of this rather robust looking piece of kit here. The work is in four movements, and while the sounds produced by the instrument are frequently ear-tickling (and even nostalgic) I couldn’t get away from the feeling that Virtaperko is trying to cram as much material into the piece as possible – I’m afraid this listener found it very hard to keep up!. There are recognisable elements of prog rock – lots of rather self-indulgent solos which I suspect are gravid with irony - and free jazz deployed throughout the work. Specific episodes elicited (in my mind at least) Varèse’s Poème Electronique, the eerie sounds of Oliver Postgate’s 1970s childrens’ favourites ‘The Clangers’, the 70s Dutch prog band Focus, even the aforementioned Frank Zappa makes an appearance in some of the neo-baroque harpsichord contributions. I’m absolutely certain that other listeners, especially those of a certain age will respond more positively than I to Ambrosian Delights ; but I was a punk, identifying with a movement that partially emerged as a reaction to the triple-concept-album excesses of prog and perhaps that’s why the sound of the knifonium itself makes me feel a little uncomfortable (at least on a subconscious level)! The composer himself admits in the notes that this work is more sprawling and less taut than its amplified cello sibling: I can only concur with this view. As Bones would say in the original Star Trek, it’s a concerto, Jim; but not as we know it.
Virtaperko’s music reveals itself to be most successful when it’s disciplined – that is certainly the case in the first two offerings here, especially Romer’s Gap. He has a judicious ear for melody and colour and it will be fascinating to see if his future work achieves a stylistic consistency. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know these works. The Jyväskylä Sinfonia prove more than equal to the idiosyncratic challenges posed by each piece; their conductor Ville Matvejeff (himself a composer) is adaptable and sympathetic to these three very different strains of Virtaperko’s maverick art. The vivid recording expertly balances the amplified, electronic and acoustic sounds. A disc for the open-minded and open-hearted, and especially for those with present (or previous) progressive rock and jazz leanings.