Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Petri Sakari conducts fine performances of Merikanto

The Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958) born in Helsinki, the son of the National Romantic composer Oskar Merikanto, was a major figure in Finnish music. He studied with Max Reger in Leipzig before the First World War caused him to travel to Moscow where he studied with Sergei Vasilenko.

Merikanto wrote a substantial body of work including three symphonies, orchestral works, concertos, chamber music and opera. His early works were rooted in Late Romanticism but from the 1920’s they became more modernist. In his opera Juha (1920-22) there is a strong expressionist streak though nevertheless retaining a degree of Late Romanticism.

By his second Violin Concerto of 1925 there are freely atonal melodies and by 1928 with his Sinfoninen harjoitelma (Symphonic study) his style was ruggedly dissonant. This new style was not received well by audiences and many of his works remained unperformed, indeed he destroyed his Third Violin Concerto (1931).

By the 1930’s Merikanto began to return to a more traditional style though whether this was because of the public’s reaction to his more radical works it is not known. During this later period he embraced Neo-Classicism though combining it with National and Romantic elements. In 1951 Merikanto was appointed Professor of Composition at the Sibelius Academy, thereby exerting an influence in post war Finnish Neo-Classicism.

Though I had known the name Aarre Merikanto it was not until I heard an Ondine CD www.ondine.net of his attractive and lyrical Cello Concerto No.2 (1941/44) (available through Amazon www.amazon.co.uk ) that I became acquainted with his music. I was, therefore, pleased to listen to a recent recording of two of his symphonies.

This recent release from Alba Records www.alba.fi has the first and third symphonies with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari who has given us some fine Sibelius performances with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on Naxos.

ABCD 336

Merikanto wrote his first and second symphonies earlier in his career (1914/16 and 1918 respectively) but his third symphony was from his later period (1952/53) so they all avoid his more radical period, which in some ways is a pity since, had he written a symphony during his modernist period, it would have been extremely interesting.

Merikano’s Symphony No.1 in B minor Op.5 is the longer work at around thirty eight minutes and opens with a strong sweeping melody reminiscent of the Swede Kurt Atterberg. This beautifully orchestrated movement continues to become at times thoughtful and dramatic, before the return of the opening melody. The Scherzo second movement seems to me the weakest part of the symphony though it is rescued by the composer’s superb orchestration which lifts it beyond the material used. The central trio section, with its wistful theme, is particularly attractive.

The heart of this symphony is the slow movement andante that carries the weight of emotion and depth. There is at times, to my ears, an oddly Irish lilt to the music though also a certain Russianness, not surprising given his study in Moscow at that time.

The concluding Allegro vivace that pushes the music along at a fine pace is also not without its Russian feel, particularly in the extended central section marked Andante religioso. This long flowing melody provides some beautiful music, again wonderfully orchestrated, before shimmering strings lead to the return of the Allegro.

The three movement Third Symphony, much shorter at 22 minutes, builds from its tentative opening to a broad lyrical theme belying the overall marking of Scherzo: Vivace but soon changes character to the lively dance like tune of the Scherzo proper. A meditative section intervenes before the resumption of the dancing theme but the movement ends with a mysterious coda.

The deeply felt second movement andante opening with woodwind trills provides the weight and emotion of this symphony. Listening to this movement it is hard to believe that Merikanto’s return to a less modernist style was led by anything other than his own creative urge, such is the weight of this movement.

The short four and a half minute allegro finale has a lively and attractive theme tossed around the orchestra before the symphony ends suddenly.

These are attractive works and, though the first symphony has sections that seem to somewhat outstay their welcome, there are many beautiful moments and some unusual touches.

The Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under their conductor Petri Sakari is on fine form and the recording is first rate. There is much to enjoy in these two works which I recommended especially those who are interested in post Sibelius Finnish music.

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