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Towards the Light
Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928-2016)
Missa a cappella (1972-2011) [23:41]
Lotta WENNÄKOSKI (b.1970)
Valossa (2014) [3:50]
Our joyful’st feast ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ [4:22]
Ommel (2014) [15:59]
Paola LIVORSI (b.1967)
Lamenti [20:16]
Helsinki Chamber Choir/Nils Schweckendiek
rec. 10-11 January 2014, Olari Church, Espoo, Finland (Rautavaara and Livorsi) and 12 April 2014, Otaniemi Chapel, Espoo, Finland. DDD.
Texts and translations included.

Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara is best known for his Cantus Arcticus (1972), a haunting concerto or cantata for migratory birds (from his own tape) and orchestra. Of many fine recordings, the least expensive, directed by Hannu Lintu on Naxos is among the best (8.554147). That directed by Osmo Vänskä on BIS is also well worth considering (BIS-CD-1038). Both offer an interesting set of couplings and those new to the composer would be well advised to start with one of these. The least recommendable, least typical music to try first would be that from his avant-garde period, such as the Violin Concerto.

That less approachable period in his music came between Cantus Arcticus and the unaccompanied Mass recorded here, by which time he had developed a timeless appeal similar to that of Arvo Pärt, Pēteris Vasks and Henryk Górecki (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). Though his father was a cantor in the local Lutheran church, Rautavaara seems to have had no strong attachment to one set of beliefs, but his Missa a cappella, like many of his other works, shows him to have had a strong sense of spirituality and of the musical past – plainsong and polyphony influences mingle with what one might call the late twentieth-century Baltic style.

Begun in 1972 but first performed complete as recently as 2011, the Missa already has a fine recording to its credit. John Quinn noted with approval its first appearance on Ondine – review – and the Kyrie is also available on an Ondine 2-CDs-for-1 offering, with other Rautavaara music (ODE1236-2D). If the coupling on the new recording appeals, that’s just as fine. There may not be much attempt to engage with the meaning of the texts – no sense of bounding joy in the Gloria, for example – but that’s inherent in Rautavaara’s setting, where the spiritual sense of the music seems to transcend the words.

For me, however, that’s a big IF about the coupling. I have to say that I find the two works by Lotta Wennäkoski, especially Ommel, far from my cup of tea – or any other beverage. I strongly urge prospective purchasers to try that track if possible, because I really can’t find words to describe what is for me just meaningless noise until very near the end. Valossa means ‘in the light’ and the album overall is called Toward the Light, but there’s not much light in these two works for me – you may feel differently.

At least the title of Paola Livorsi’s Lamenti warns us that this is not going to be a fun piece. Though the texts set are secular, the final one by Lorca, the title seems to connect the music with the lament form associated with the reading of the book of Lamentations at the end of Holy Week, sometimes known as Tenebræ. And though the style may be very different from that of Tallis or Palestrina, or the laments of lovers in madrigals and early opera, the music shares the same kind of haunting spirituality.

I can’t say that I enjoyed any of the music here other than the Rautavaara, so it would be to the Ondine recording of that work that I would turn for future hearing. I do recommend, however, sampling the other music if you can; unfortunately, neither Naxos Music Library nor Qobuz seem to offer it for streaming to members and not even Spotify have it, though you can sample the Ondine there.

Despite the accomplished advocacy of the Helsinki choir and their director and the fine recording – the acoustic a touch dry – I find this very much a recording of two halves, to which I shall probably turn in future only for the Rautavaara.

Brian Wilson

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