Monday 18 February 2013

Strongly recommended performances of music by Madetoja from John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on Ondine

Leevi Antti Madetoja (1887-1947) was from the generation of Finnish composers after Sibelius. Born in Oulu, in the region of Northern Ostrobothnia, in Finland, he was the son of Antti Madetoja and Anna Hyttinen. His father travelled to the United States to find work, but died of tuberculosis, having never seen his son. Madetoja studied under Sibelius in Helsinki from 1906 to 1910 before travelling to Paris for further study with Vincent D’Indy. In 1911 he visited Vienna and Berlin before, in 1913, marrying the writer Hilja Onerva Lehtinen. From 1912 to 1914, he conducted the orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society and from 1914 to 1916 was conductor of the Viipuri Orchestra, where he was also director of the orchestra school.

Madetoja’s stylistic features were formed at an early age and changed little during his lifetime. During further extensive stays in France he was drawn by the Classical approach of Vincent D’Indy rather than the Impressionism of Debussy. His music was influenced by the traditional music of his home region, Ostrobothnia.

His early tone poem Kullervo (1913) is full of expression and atmosphere but it is his three symphonies that make up the core of Madetoja’s output. The First Symphony in F major dates from 1916 and is the shortest of the three. The Second Symphony in E flat major (1918), written during the Finnish Civil war, is full of grandeur. Whilst he didn’t fight in the Finnish Civil War, Madetoja was deeply affected by the events, including the death of his brother, Yrjö, who was killed in action.

Many consider that his Third Symphony in A major, partly written in France in 1926, is his masterpiece. A more restrained work, it has an orchestration that is influenced by his French surroundings. Important in his output are his two operas Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnian’s) (1923) and Juha (1934).

In the 1930’s, a suitcase containing the score of his fourth symphony was stolen from him at a railway station; and never recovered. Madetoja did not try to reconstruct the symphony and, in his last years, wrote little. However, he was planning a violin concerto when he died, aged only 60. In addition to his two operas and three symphonies, Madetoja wrote a number of orchestral works, songs, choral works and chamber works.

Followers of my blog will know of my enthusiasm for both earlier and contemporary composers. I have already explored the music of Madetoja by way of the recordings made by Finlandia and reissued in a Warner Classics Ultima two CD set. These recordings include the three symphonies and, whilst the performance of the Second Symphony, with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Rautio, is very good, there is a newcomer that is very fine indeed.

This new release is from Ondine and has a performance of Madetoja’s Symphony No.2 in E flat major Op.35 with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds coupled with the early Kullervo Op.15 and Elegy Op.4/1.

ODE 1212-2
The first work on this new disc is Madetoja’s Kullervo that opens with a brass and orchestral outburst before dropping to distant horn calls prior to the main melodic theme being introduced, predominantly for strings. Brass interruptions add a sense of foreboding to what is mainly a broad romantic sweep. Soon there is a brass and woodwind passage before building to a brief climax. As the music quietens there is a solo clarinet motif with the timpani quietly in the background. The timpani lead into further development of the opening horn motif that increases in drama.

Swirls of strings show the influence of Sibelius before the music rises to another climax, after which the clarinet and oboe take the melody as a duet, the oboe taking the melody as the orchestra enters. The flute has a dominant role with the orchestra as the music quietens to a brooding passage. The music rises again with brass giving full support over the orchestra, driving it along. There is a section where the momentum falters before rushing headlong towards the end, then tailing off to a quiet moment before a rich orchestral sound takes us into a repeat of the quiet theme to end. This is a work that deserves a place in the repertoire.

Madetoja’s Symphony No.2 in E flat major Op.35 has a first movement allegro moderato opening with a gentle flowing melody pointed up by short woodwind phrases and pizzicato basses. There is a brief climax, after which the music is developed. There are many beautiful, quiet woodwind moments and as the tension builds towards a climax with deep brass, the music rises with all the brass together with cymbals, until falling back on a plaintive oboe tune. This is developed by the woodwind.

There is another orchestral climax before falling back with the return of the gently flowing opening melody. The music increases in drama but again drops back to a rhythmic variation of the original theme. There is a brief climax before the music quietens with woodwind varying the opening theme. The music then opens out with strings, leading straight into the second movement andante with a solo cor anglais, whose theme is taken up eventually by a horn but as the orchestra enters, the mood is lightened. However, the timpani and oboes interrupt. There are numerous woodwind passages between the orchestral sections and, in particular, a beautiful moment where woodwind and horns are set against the orchestra The horns then pull the music forward, rising in drama to the first real climax of this movement. There is beautiful orchestration where Madetoja uses the brass and woodwind so imaginatively. The music falls back to pizzicato strings and woodwind then rises to a static passage that is somewhat Sibelian. Horns sound as the orchestra continues to be static. Bassoon and oboe take over as the strings move tentatively forward with woodwind keeping the melody. Slowly the music rises as if towards a dramatic climax but drops back with a cor anglais solo leading to a quiet brooding coda. This is a superb movement full of wonder and beauty.

The third movement, allegro non troppo, has a dynamic opening with full orchestra, brass and percussion with scurrying rhythms, the strings whipping up a storm, with woodwind swirling around. Eventually a marching rhythm enters pushing forward, strings scurry upwards, brass making a dominant contribution. The music backs off before a full climax, yet still tries to push forward. A real battle seems to be taking place with stabbing brass, more scurrying strings, before the March returns quietly, slowly growing louder. A lot is going on behind the marching strings in the woodwind and brass. With cymbal clashes, an inevitable sounding climax is finally reached with horns overlaying the orchestra in a terrific coda that trails off with quiet oboes against strings leading straight into the andantino finale with a slow, quiet string passage under laid with brass. Plaintive woodwind take over against pizzicato low strings before eventually the strings take over as the music broadens to a beautiful conclusion, mellow and resigned, leading to a little climax before ending quietly with flute trills.

Madetoja’s Elegy Op.4/1 was written in 1909, but later became part of his four-movement Sinfoninen sarja (Symphonic Suite) of 1910, hence the opus number. The Elegy, his first orchestral work, opens with a quiet, gently nuanced theme. Though a short work, it gains from its varying rhythmic pulse. The piece builds through a small climax to return to the gentle rhythm of the opening. The orchestration may not be as interesting as in his later works but nevertheless this is an attractive little work.

These are wonderful performances from John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra of music that is undeservedly neglected. The recording from the Helsinki Music Centre is excellent. Strongly recommended.

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