Thursday 5 April 2012

Why does Finland continue to produce so many fine composers?

The population of Finland is only 5.4 million and has an average population density of 17 inhabitants per square kilometre. Compare their population to Germany at 81.8 million or Britain of 62.2 million.

Given the small and sparsely populated nature of the country, it wasn’t always the case that Finland had the opportunities for aspiring composers.

The first Finnish classical composer that will be generally known today is Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775-1837) who was made popular again when Emma Johnson, the young winner of the 1984 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, chose to play a Crusell clarinet concerto to great acclaim. Her brilliant performances are available on Regis .

However, Crusell found it necessary to leave Finland to pursue his studies and career, only returning to his home country for recitals.

A new era in Finnish music began with the founding of the Helsinki Music Institute in 1882 (later the Helsinki Conservatory, now known as the Sibelius academy) by Martin Wegelius (1846-1906) and the Helsinki Orchestra Society (now the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra) by Robert Kajanus (1856-1933).

The Helsinki Orchestra Society provided the first professional symphony orchestra in the Nordic countries. Both Wegelius and Kajanus studied in Leipzig but it was Kajanus that became the more significant composer. A beautifully played performance of some of his orchestral works can be found on a BIS recording, BIS-CD-1223  performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vanska. I would recommend this recording to all those interested in hearing what was written by Sibelius’ greatest champion.

Of course the mention of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) brings us to the greatest name in Finnish music, whose works have been recorded by many artists on many record labels. BIS Records have now completed a complete Sibelius edition .

There isn’t room in this blog to mention all the other Finnish composers who followed Sibelius but I would mention just a few that are worth hearing such as Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) (Ondine have recorded his six symphonies ),  Selim Palmgren (1878-1951) (Warner Ultima did issue a 2 CD set of his five piano concertos but sadly this is not currently available), Aarre Merikanto (1893-1858) (Ondine have recorded some of his orchestral works and Alba Records two of his symphonies ), Uuno Klami (1900-1961) (an inexpensive recording of some of his orchestral works is available on Naxos 8.553757 )  and Einar Englund (1916-1999) (Ondine  have recorded a lot of his music including all seven symphonies that are well work hearing) .

In the post war period the giant in Finnish music has been Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928). Rautavaara has gone through several stylistic periods in his career: Neo-Classicism, dodecaphony and neo romanticism. Yet throughout he has maintained a consistent personal voice that has made him one of Finland’s greatest composers. His eight symphonies to date are all available from Ondine Records, as are all of his concertos and many of his operas .

ODE 1145 2Q (4CD)

ODE 1156-2Q (4CD)
Rautavaara was closely followed by Aulis Sallinen (b.1935), another composer of symphonies and operas. He, too, came to composition at the time of Modernism and dallied with dodecaphony before progressing to a form of free tonality. Whilst Sallinen’s career turned to opera after the premiere of his opera ‘Ratsumies’ (The Horseman) in 1974, he has continued to produce symphonies now numbering eight.

Try Sallinen’s Symphony No.8 and Violin Concerto to get a feel for this composer’s attractive music.

CPO Records 999 972-2
The next generation in Finnish music brought another great symphonist in the form of Kalevi Aho (b.1949). Although Aho has written a number of operas, his main focus has been symphonies, now numbering fifteen. This most recent symphony was premiered in Manchester in March 2011 when The Daily Telegraph’s critic David Fanning said of him ‘…others may match him for energy, profundity or orchestral mastery, but none…has the magic formula for all of these things at once…’

BIS Records have recorded many of his works including nearly all of his symphonies . I came to his music through Symphony No.12 ‘Luosto’, a tremendous work premiered outdoors on the slopes of Mount Luosto in Finnish Lapland in August 2003. You really should try the BIS recording (in a church this time) of this great work, full of drama and beauty.


I would also recommend BIS Records’ most recent Aho release of his Symphony No.14 coupled with Kysymysten Kirja (The Book of Questions) and his Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra, all intended to be performed together in a single concert as they were at their premiere in 2007.

Following Aho there is Magnus Lindberg (b.1958) who has managed to create a distinct, personal and approachable language. Ondine  have recorded much of his music including a four CD set of his orchestral music that is a good starting point.

ODE 1110-2Q (4CD)

I have, as you would expect, only covered a few of the significant and in some cases great Finnish contemporary composers. I can only briefly mention Pehr Nordgren (b.1944), Kaija Saariaho (b.1952), and the conductor composers Leif Segerstam (b.1944) who has written more than 80 symphonies to date, none of which I managed to hear yet, and Esa-Pekka Salonen (b.1958), who despite his immensely successful conducting career, has returned to his first love of composing.

So why then has Finland managed such a wealth of musical talent? Well the Finnish government isn’t frightened to financially support its composers. Sibelius was awarded a pension to allow him to concentrate on composition and, in more recent times, in 1994, Kalevi Aho was awarded a 15 year grant from the Finnish state. Add to this a vibrant contemporary opera scene and the many symphony orchestras and music festivals and you will have much of the answer.

The concert calendar of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras, for autumn 2002, lists no less than 28 orchestras of which 14 are professional symphony orchestras. In 1993 the new Opera House of the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki was inaugurated. The Savonlinna Opera Festival, held in the Medieval castle of Olavinlinna each summer, is the country’s number-two opera venue with other smaller ‘alternative- approach’ opera companies mainly around the Helsinki area. And just remember the size of this country.

To return to the great senior figure in Finnish music, Einojuhani Rautavaara, we come to Ondine’s latest release of two concertos and an orchestral work by this master.

ODE 1178-2

As this new issue contains Rautavaara’s Cello Concerto No.2 and his Percussion Concerto ‘Incantations’ the box set of concertos issued by Ondine and mentioned above, is out of date already and for that we should be grateful for these are two great additions to his output.

I listened to the Percussion Concerto first as I was fascinated to hear how Rautavaara would approach such a work. Rautavaara predominantly uses the marimba and vibraphone in this works with occasional use of drums, cymbals, tubular bells and crotales.

The opening is strikingly brilliant with dissonant chords. The soloist soon enters on the marimba and following a brief episode for drums, the vibraphone weaves its magic in music of great beauty.

The slow movement uses only vibraphone. This is a magical movement with soloist weaving his sound around the orchestra. The interplay of soloist and orchestra is masterfully done by both composer and performer.

The finale opens on marimba in a gentle but lively theme. The soloist moves between vibraphone and marimba creating rich sounds that run seamlessly into tubular bells (how does Colin Currie do it?) before the cadenza.  This cadenza, supplied by Colin Currie, seems to encapsulate all that has gone before.

The work ends when the marimba joins the orchestra in a restatement of the rich and weighty opening theme. There is no doubt that Colin Currie is a stunning artist.

Rautavaara’s first cello concerto dates from 1968 and was his first ever concerto. In this second concerto there is an almost continuous flow of melody from the cello throughout the work, which is constructed in the form of theme, variations and finale.

In the first movement theme, there is beautifully expressive playing from the work’s dedicatee, Truls Mørk, leading without a break to the second movement variations in which the soloist weaves some beautiful cello sounds around the soaring arabesques of the orchestra. At times, Mørk's  playing of the cello part is of such intensity that it is heartrending.

The third movement finale again follows without a break and continues with the flowing interplay of melody between cello and orchestra. After a brief stormy episode with brass, the cello soars higher and higher, against quiet accompaniment of the orchestra, into nothing.

The third work on this disc is ‘Modificata’, a 2003 revision of material from two works dating back to 1957 and Rautavaara’s 12 tone period. This may be in many ways a different Rautavaara from the later one we know today, but his individual voice still shines through in writing that is beautifully orchestrated, sensitive and atmospheric, though clearly 12 tone in its construction.

With informative notes by Finnish music expert Kimmo Korhonen, I thoroughly recommend this disc which I have listened to again and again.

See also:

Marvellously played Chamber Symphonies from Kalevi Aho

A Trombone Concerto from Finland’s Kalevi Aho

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