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Erkki SALMENHAARA (1941-2002)
Toccata (1965) [12:43]
Intrada (1967) [7:52]
Prelude – Interlude – Postlude (1969) [11:02]
Canzona (1971) [8:52]
Ricercata (1977) [9:43]
Introduction and Toccata (1985) [6:20]
Jan Lehtola (organ)
rec. 2018, Turku Cathedral, Finland

Erkki Salmenhara was a leading figure, “one of the tentpoles” as Jan Lehtola’s booklet notes charmingly put it, in Finnish musical life in the second half of the 20th century, working as a critic, administrator and musicologist among other things as well as composing. A quick search though the MWI site shows recordings of symphonies, piano works and chamber music, so while his is not a household name there is clearly a good deal of respect for his output amongst musicians in the know.

The organ works have been recorded here in chronological order, and present something of an overview of Salmenhaara’s stylistic evolution. The organ only really took off in Finland as a medium for serious composers in the 1970s, but it was Salmenhaara’s preferred instrument in his youth, and so he was ahead of the game with his Toccata from 1965. The titles for these works don’t reflect their character in conventional terms, and the impressive, dense chord that opens this work opens the gates to a world of stately, monumental expression. Cast in three movements, it was originally composed as a single span, and this is reflected in music that has a glacial pace without somehow feeling too static. The influence of Ligeti is cited here, and it is also impossible not to hear some echoes of Messiaen though this is a side-effect in almost all contemporary organ music. Critics of the time spotted a lack of definition on the form of this work, and it does have a certain improvisatory quality which achieves greater clarity in the later works. There is however plenty of grand effect and some subtlety in the writing that keeps the listener engaged: “one of the fine points of dodecaphony is that the composer can feast on crusty surfaces and unresolved harmonies, keeping the listener constantly alert.”

Intrada was possibly a piece composed as a competition entry, but its origins are uncertain. It follows a similar idiom to the previous Toccata, balancing exploratory and transparent simplicity and a certain amount of counterpoint with craggy atonality, though there is a thematic quality both to the textures and musical gestures that lend this work a stretched but clear cohesion. Prelude – Interlude – Postlude takes us further towards Salmenhaara’s later more tonal style without actual resolution but with passages that spring from pedal tones and using intervals of parallel fourths and other tonal devices: “striving towards triadic tonality spiced with bitonal effects.” On a similar scale to the Toccata, the sonic pallet is also comparable, as is the slow feeling of inevitability about its development. The central Interlude sets up a strong atmosphere through its soft, ongoing accompaniments over which thematic and indeed melodic gestures and phrases make their own organic progress, and the impressive but brief final Postlude “unfurls a grand melody such as is not to be found in his other works for organ.”

Canzona falls into two sections, the opening sustained fifth interval in the pedal immediately creating a more concrete link with music of the past. Representing Salmanhaara’s move towards simpler means of musical expression, this is still slow-moving and reflective in character, but more translucent in texture. The sustained pedal releases into outward expanding harmonies over a stepwise moving minor-third theme taking us on a celestial stairway that becomes transformed in variations that proceed in triple time. The Ricercata was a competition entry that won third prize at the Lahti Organ Festival. This is a piece with relatively introverted expressiveness at its heart, though with dissonance at its opening and close. None of this music is horrendously demanding of the performer in a technical sense, as the single-day recording session would also seem to confirm, but Jan Lehtola musters plenty of expressive power here, for instance where Salmenhaara contrasts little church-like fragments cheek by jowl with more forceful modernity. The final Introduction and Toccata brings us up to 1985 and Salmenhaara’s last work for organ. Again monumental in character, there is an inner harmonic life to this piece that makes it more directly appealing, though its expressive nature is still somewhat Gothic and forbidding. The final Toccata is like a window opening on everything that has gone before – a flowing two-minute climactic chase towards a concluding cadence that closes that gate for the last time.

This is a well-recorded and fine collection of organ works by an important name in 20th century Finnish music. I’ve had a hunt around and found an alternative Prelude-Interlude-Postlude on the Finlandia label but there’s not much else in the catalogue, and nothing that would beat this release for quality. The organ used is a fine instrument from 1980 by Veikko Virtanen Oy which seems perfect for this music, the acoustic of Turku Cathedral being spacious without being swampy. The slow character of much of the music makes it a good idea to dip in perhaps rather than go for a full sitting, but this depends on your own tastes and mood. I’ve enjoyed discovering these works, and have already gainfully started exploring Salmenhaara’s orchestral output as a result.

Dominy Clements

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