Evening Dusk Serenade
Newly Discovered Finnish Works for Violin and Orchestra
Linda Hedlund (violin), Elisa Järvi (piano), La Tempesta Orchestra/Jyri Nissilä
rec. August 2019, Roihuvuori Church, Helsinki; September 2020, Sound Team Godzinsky Ltd Studio, Hintaara, Finland
NAXOS 8.579095 [57:24]
Some CDs slip past the radar, and this new Naxos release could just be one of them. If you’re a violinist and/or have Finnish roots, no doubt you’ll be eager to listen to it. But otherwise, the title might not ‘sell’ the disc to the degree it deserves. This is a real pity, because, apart from one niggle, I sat there enthralled, when I auditioned it for the first time.
Even with a comprehensive list of Finnish composers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries in front of me to help, I was still hard pressed to name more than five or so. I didn’t even realise that the CD’s title, Evening Dusk Serenade, referred to an eponymous little miniature by George de Godzinsky, but who was Russian-born anyway.
The sleeve notes, contributed by Olli-Pekka Tuomisalo, are extremely comprehensive and informative. He begins by saying that he came across the works on the recording, in the archives of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, while he had been researching forgotten and unpublished scores for his own instrument, the saxophone. He happened upon some violin works by the Russian-Finnish pianist, conductor and composer, George de Godzinsky and – already familiar with the composer’s saxophone music – Tuomisalo immediately thought of his friend and violinist, Linda Hedlund. It wasn’t long before the contents of the new CD were decided upon, even though all the works are world-premiere recordings, and the majority exist in unpublished manuscript form only.
The booklet informs us that the music on the CD reflects a style of light-classical music, exemplified by British composers like Eric Coates and Ronald Binge, which had its heyday from the 1930s to the 60s but which has now fallen into relative obscurity. He cites the rise of modernism, and the resulting tendency for today’s orchestras to eschew Light Music repertoire per se, as the main reasons for this, referring to the genre as ‘more entertainment than high art’. As for the fact that Finland, somewhat unexpectedly, should have a particularly robust Light Music history, is largely attributable to the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and its two light orchestras – the Finnish Radio Symphony, and Finnish Radio Light Orchestras respectively. Tuomisalo describes the music on the CD as ‘typically highly-lyrical, light-hearted, romantic in character, and imbued with a pervasive charm tinged with sentimentality’. You may well agree – or not.
Godzinsky was born in St Petersburg, but emigrated with his parents to Finland at the age of five. He studied at Helsinki Conservatory of Music and worked as a pianist for the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, making his conducting debut with the company at the age of nineteen. As well as his career in opera and theatre, he was also active in the dance and light music industry, and started out playing in some of Helsinki’s restaurants. He later led the Entertainment Orchestra of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and was considered a leading figure at home, as well as an important voice in the European entertainment-orchestra tradition, until his death in 1994.
His Valse gracieuse is a charming little number with which to open the CD, As the title suggests, the main recurring section requires graceful treatment and impeccable articulation, while the slower intervening episodes simply cry out for the type of tone produced by a combination of the legendary Alfredo Campoli, with an added soupçon of Stephane Grappelli. Ms Hedlund’s playing is absolutely spot-on for the repertoire, as is the excellent support from La Tempesta Orchestra, under their equally-empathetic conductor Jyri Nissilä.
Apart from Jean Sibelius, Uuno Klami is often considered one of the best-known and most important composers in the history of Finnish music, having written a large number of short compositions for the then-up-and-coming Radio Symphony Orchestra – Esquisse, for violin and string orchestra, and the next track on the CD, providing a perfect example. It is both calm and impassioned in parts, and relies on its lyrical melody, delivered against a simple, yet effective accompaniment, where the harmonic palette keeps the listener sufficiently on their toes, while avoiding anything bordering on astringency.
Nils-Erik Fougstedt conducted the Radio Orchestra from 1944 to 1951, and was its chief conductor from 1951 to 1960. The next piece – Caresse – was originally for violin and piano, but is heard here in Godzinsky’s shimmering orchestration, which seeks to underline Fougstedt’s quasi-impressionist style of writing – just another little gem, to which soloist and orchestra do real justice.
Budapest-born Elemér Szentirmay was predominantly involved in the field of traditional Hungarian folk music, where, as a student, he won the approval of both Bartók and Kodály. Mustalainen, originally for violin and piano, was also orchestrated by Godzinsky. The Finnish title literally means ‘The Gypsy’, and its melody – couched in the style of the slow section (lassan) of a Hungarian csárdás – is one that I’m sure the vast majority of listeners will recognise. Not only do we have the Gypsy violinist, walking from table to table in a Budapest city restaurant, or one enjoying the views across the Danube, but also a highly-accomplished Klezmer-style clarinettist, to help create just the right ambiance. Most orchestras’ tuned-percussion sections will have a wide array of available instruments, but perhaps may not always stretch to the cimbalom, possibly the reason for the strangely-prominent celesta part, no doubt asked for here as an acceptable alternative to the otherwise quintessential Hungarian instrument. What a pity, though, that there wasn’t the customary fast section – friska – to round Mustalainen off on a characteristically high note.
The next composer – Yrjö Gunaropoulos – is best known as the composer of the first two Finnish concertos for saxophone, in addition to concertos for cello and piano respectively. Russian by birth, Gunaropoulos fled the revolution in St Petersburg, to settle in Finland with his family. His Canzonetta, I feel, very much reflects his ethnicity, and, almost from the outset, exhibits that Russian style of passionate yearning that imbues so much of Tchaikovsky’s music. I found it particularly poignant, and, to use a well-worn cliché, Ms Hedlund really did make her violin ‘sing’.
Next up is another work by Godzinsky – his Humoresque. Structurally, and harmonically, it is very much a carbon copy of his Valse gracieuse, just swapping the former’s triple-time for the latter’s duple. Apart from Binge, Docker, Coates, and others, I detected just a hint of British-born pianist and composer, Billy Mayerl (1902-1959) – altogether another frivolous, yet catchy little confection, neatly and nimbly performed by all concerned.
Among Finnish composers, Heino Kaski is generally thought of as the one most overshadowed by Sibelius – and they even managed to die one day apart, so the deluge of obituaries for Sibelius meant that Kaski’s passing went almost unnoticed. His Fantasia appassionata provides the next track, and is the longest work so far. Clearly intended as a ‘serious’ work for violin and orchestra, it does have some effective moments along the way. The players also do their very best to big it up, but, at the end of the day, it seems to lack the melodic distinction and inventiveness of most of the other tracks, and its opening, for example, appears stilted and somewhat contrived. According to the booklet, Kaski’s style of composition is often said to describe Finland’s ‘deep waters and swaying pine trees’ – all part of this northern land’s epic natural beauty. But, given Finland’s super-abundance of lakes and trees, applying such a description to Kaski’s music might equally allude to a feeling of predictability, however unintentionally so.
Like Godzinsky, Harry Bergström was also an all-round musician, and composer of numerous film scores, two rhapsodies for piano and orchestra, and a vast amount of ‘Schlager’ music – a European style of vocal pop music which often has a catchy instrumental accompaniment. His two concomitant works for violin – Niskavuoren naiset (The Women of Niskavuori) – Rakkausserenaadi (Love Serenade) date from 1970, and are very much in the film-music genre. John Williams’s music for Schindler’s List, although written some twenty years later, has much of the same poignancy and, of course, a prominent violin part. Bergström’s Romance in E-flat, that follows, is from the same era, and again is well-written, and orchestrated by someone clearly used to creating some lovely sonorities straight from the big screen.
Godzinsky returns with Iltahämärän sävel (Evening Dusk Serenade), which is also the title of the CD. In fact it’s a most apposite track to choose for the purpose, since it epitomises the light-music style per se, as well as providing a musical template for future similar works – even the work’s title is so apt for the genre. Structurally it follows a by-now familiar-pattern, but the middle section is particularly enchanting as it moves seamlessly from the opening duple rhythm to triple, and then back again.
The next track – Hiljainen yö (Peaceful Night) – is Godzinsky’s final contribution to the CD, and probably the one track where, from the title itself, you might be expecting something
similar to the previous track. There’s a short introduction of less than twenty seconds, before everything suddenly morphs into a seductive South American tango, complete with accordion, and fairly prominent saxophone part, which reminded me somewhat of the ‘Foxtrot (Blues)’ movement from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No 1 – or, if you were active at the time, the unique sound of Victor Silvester and his Ballroom Orchestra, from the 1930s through to the 80s.
There is just one more composer to introduce – Eino Partanen – whose instruments included banjo and saxophone, and composed a significant number of waltzes and tangos. Näkemiin tähtisilmä (Goodbye Star Eyes) is Partanen’s own take on the tango, conceived in similar vein to Godzinsky’s example above. I would only add that Partanen’s seems to exude a somewhat more Mediterranean ambience overall.
After so many enjoyable and entertaining tracks, all splendidly performed, the final one is a disappointment to me. The performance is as good as all the rest, and even merits a special word of commendation for pianist Elisa Järvi, making her sole appearance on the CD, when she accompanies Ms Hedlund with great aplomb. No, for me the problem is that the final track is simply the original violin and piano version of Track 7 – Kaski’s Fantasia appassionata, already the longest track on the CD, and, I felt, not one of the most-compelling pieces either. Yes, it’s nice to be able to compare both versions, especially if you are a student of orchestration, but I can see no other rationale using it to round off an otherwise most enjoyable CD. Without it, the CD would have a slightly less-generous playing-time of around fifty minutes, but surely somewhere in the archives, there must lurk another work for violin and piano, which would take relatively little time to orchestrate. It could have avoided the need for a separate recording session by Ms Järvi, who had already been heard as a regular orchestra-member member of the orchestra, on piano and celesta, respectively. When summing up, Ms Hedlund gave no explanation for this duplication, which, in my opinion, does detract from the overall enjoyment of and ultimate success of an otherwise extremely well-played and well-recorded product.
However, I still think this CD is well-worth investigating, especially if, like me, you have a soft-spot for the genre, and occasionally want some nostalgic easy-listening music, while relaxing with an afternoon cup of tea or coffee, and perhaps an over-indulgent chocolate biscuit – or two.
Dr Tuomisalo does say in the booklet that the works on the CD are ‘worthy of interest not only to violinists, but to all lovers of music’ – and I, for one, would still go along with his appraisal.
Philip R Buttall
Harry BERGSTRÖM (1910–1989)
Niskavuoren naiset (The Women of Niskavuori) – Rakkausserenaadi (Love Serenade) (1970) [4:56]
Romance in E-flat major (1970) [3:18]
Nils-Eric FOUGSTEDT (1910–1961)
Caresse (1944) [3:11]
George de GODZINSKY (1914–1994)
Valse gracieuse (1951) [4:01]
Humoresque (1966) [4:48]
Iltahämärän sävel (Evening Dusk Serenade) (date unknown) [3.18]
Hiljainen yö (Peaceful Night) (date unknown) [3:13]
Yrjö GUNAROPOULOS (1904–1968)
Canzonetta (1931) [3:00]
Heino KASKI (1885–1957)
Fantasia appassionata, Op 9 (1954) [7:48]
Fantasia appassionata, Op 9 (1954) (version for violin and piano) [7:48] *
Uuno KLAMI (1900–1961)
Esquisse (1932) [3:03]
Eino PARTANEN (1915–2004)
Näkemiin tähtisilmä (Goodbye Star Eyes) (date unknown) [3:18]
Elemér SZENTIRMAY (1836–1908)
Mustalainen (The Gypsy) (1875) [4:32]