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Erkki Olavi SALMENHAARA (1941-2002)
Symphony No. 2 (1963/66) [20:20]
Symphony No. 3 (1963/64) [32:36]
Symphony No. 4 Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (1971/72) [26:22]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Berglund (2); Petri Komulainen (3); Ulf Söderblom (4)
rec. 1966 (2); 2008 (3); 1976 (4), Finnish Broadcasting Company

There is something disturbingly satisfying about a disc that presents to audiences three consecutively numbered symphonies by a composer we hear precious little about. That the disc runs very close to the maximum capacity of a CD is a bonus.

To many this composer is but a name and a Finnish one at that. Salmenhaara was born in Helsinki and studied composition with Kokkonen and Ligeti. Of his five symphonies the First Crescendi (1962, rev. 1963) lies unrecorded. The next three agreeably and logically are gathered on this disc. The Fifth Lintukoto (‘Isle of Bliss’ - words by Aleksis Kivi) (1989) was recorded in 1991 by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Jorma Panula on the University of Helsinki label (UHCD 350). A collection of his non-symphonic orchestral works can be had on Ondine and his piano music and chamber music are to be found on FC Records in which Jouni Somero is a prime mover. There is more to be discovered including an opera, music for kantele and concertos for horn (1973) and for cello (183-87).

The Second Symphony is the first of two avant-garde symphonies that revel in radicalism¸ tone clusters and sound collages … or so we are told. Certainly, they sound like the products of 1960s Darmstadt but packaged in a "symphonic form" that is at odds with most Darmstadt expectations. From the shifting miasmic dissonances of the first movement of No. 2 to the shock-imbued cannonades of the central Allegro to the tolling hysterical final Lento, this Symphony becomes steadily more of a narrative and less of a series of episodes juxtaposed. The 1966 recording was made by that high priest of Sibelius, Paavo Berglund, in the same year the score went through its revision. Tougher than the symphonies of Sallinen and Kokkonen, it remains a tough proposition.

Speaking of which, the Third Symphony is approximately the same unforgiving constituency. Atonality and episodic progress are the order of the day. The second movement is a Marcia funebre which starts very quietly indeed and barely gets much louder. A taut quiet pizzicato (1:47) releases some of the tension but this is soon reasserted. The finale is, like the first movement, another Grave and the brooding nihilistic atonality remains in place all the way until the closing pages.

The Second and Third symphonies are in stark contrast to the Fourth Symphony which is in four movements. Yet only five or so years had elapsed. The idiom of the Fourth is very often reverentially Sibelian (symphonies 3 and 6) and is a complete and accessible break from the thorny avant-garderie of its two predecessors - and presumably the First as well. The first Allegro (the finale is also an Allegro) is written in easeful long lines with distinctive woodwind grace-lines to add emphasis. The slow rock-a-bye of the solipsistic Andante nods in the direction of 1940s Copland. An eccentric but life-enhancing Allegretto chatters and curves and is all over in the space of 2:36 but not before a fulsome contribution from the French horns. The finale is very satisfying and is a strong, almost cinematic statement of optimistic fulfilment hammered out, won and held. It's interesting to note that Salmenhaara wrote a study of Sibelius's Tapiola and that Le Bateau Ivre (inspired by Rimbaud and also favoured by the French composer Maurice Delage), an impressionistic tone poem, prefigured, in 1965-66, Salmenhaara's transition towards tonality.

The liner-note ("The Symphonist Erkko Salmenhaara") for this invaluable disc is by the composer Kalevi Aho.

Three Finnish symphonies demonstrating progression. The first two here bathe the listener in music that is tough and likely to hold at arm's length all but the most academically fascinated. The Fourth Symphony will speak, without obstacle, to those who still value the resilience of melodic invention and atmosphere.

Rob Barnett


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