RAUTAVAARA: Garden of Spaces. Clarinet Concerto. Cantus Arcticus

by Walter Simmons

RAUTAVAARA Garden of Spaces. Clarinet Concerto. Cantus Arcticus • Leif Segerstam, cond; Helsinki PO; Richard Stoltzman (cl) • ONDINE ODE-1041-2 (59:08)

The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara seems to have emerged as one of the world’s foremost living composers of “contemporary classical music.” Celebrating his 80th birthday this year, he has compiled a formidable body of work that collectively has undergone a number of major stylistic transformations that place him among the “postmodernists.” Of course, given the diversity of the fields covered by the inadequate terms “contemporary classical music” and “postmodernists,” no assertion such as the opening statement above will escape disputation in some quarters. Generally speaking, those listeners who are open to the adventure of discovering new music, but expect it to be “pleasing to the ears,” seem to find Rautavaara just what they’re looking for; while those listeners who are not satisfied by sheer euphony and require some meaty musical substance seem to find his music to be so much “ear candy.” As for my own reaction, I find myself on the fence: Most of what I have heard places me in the latter category above. But I haven’t heard a large enough proportion of Rautavaara’s output to justify a conclusive judgment; I continually suspect that there is some really significant music there, but I just haven’t found it yet. So it is with that frame of reference that I approached this recent release.

In short, I am afraid that this recording doesn’t really shift my position in either direction. The shortest piece (just under 15 minutes), Garden of Spaces, is the one I found most successful. Rautavaara’s music presents itself in broad gestures: lush, sweeping cushions of orchestral sonority against which some sort of expansively rhetorical focal activity takes place. Originally composed in 1971, but revised in 2003, Garden of Spaces is actually structured aleatorically, leaving much of the work’s design to the conductor. In this case, composer-conductor Leif Segerstam seems ideal (not that I’ve heard any other version of the piece), making of it a very fulfilling, satisfyingly shaped experience; as “ear candy,” it is quite delicious, and concise enough not to induce tedium or impatient annoyance.

The “big” piece here is the Clarinet Concerto. Composed in 2001 for—and in consultation with—Richard Stoltzman, who gave the work’s premiere the following year with the National Symphony Orchestra, under Leonard Slatkin’s direction, and who performs it on this first recording, the concerto feels somewhat longer than its 26 minutes. Despite some sense of agitation and conflict in the work’s outer movements, most of it follows the general description given in the previous paragraph above: Against the large expanses of luxuriant orchestral texture, the clarinet plays largely diatonic lines that are mostly non-metrical or cadenza-like in effect, peppered with some slightly non-traditional instrumental effects. Although individual moments are sonically ravishing, the lack of metrical rhythm and insufficient contrast between the first two movements make the music’s sense of progression rather slow and tedious. In the more active finale, the impact of the clarinet is improvisatory and almost coloratura-like. Stoltzman presents the concerto with his customary technical virtuosity and luscious tone quality.

Cantus Arcticus
, subtitled “Concerto for Birds and Orchestra,” was composed in 1972 and has become Rautavaara’s best-known and most often heard work. At this point one might mention a parallel—noted by many others as well as myself—between Rautavaara and the Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness. (In fact, admirers of Hovhaness’s music would be likely candidates for responding favorably to Rautavaara’s.) Of course, Hovhaness’s orientalisms and archaisms are not shared by the Finn; also, roughly between 1945 and 1955 Hovhaness produced a number of works of strikingly exotic beauty and intensity I have yet to find equaled by Rautavaara. But, those qualifications having been stated, Cantus Arcticus, with its blend of Arctic birdsongs—both natural and electronically altered—and richly consonant orchestration, occupies a place among the works of Rautavaara generally analogous to the hypothetical combination of Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain and And God Created Great Whales. Or, put another way, Cantus Arcticus evokes a sense of serene exaltation that is remarkably similar to that conjured by Mysterious Mountain, while it far surpasses in sophistication and craftsmanship Hovhaness’s concoction of whale sounds with orchestral accompaniment. However, I must confess to finding the forward sonic focus of the birdsongs in Rautavaara’s work—though appropriate for a “concerto”—a little abrasive; I think if they were less prominent in the “mix” I would enjoy it more. Also, I find once again that the lack of a sense of progression makes the work somewhat tedious. I wrote in a previous review that Cantus Arcticus would make an ideal soundtrack for a video documentary on the Arctic region, and returning to the work, I find myself with the same thought. 

Not surprisingly, in view of its popularity, Cantus Arcticus is represented on a number of recordings. This Ondine release offers an extremely rich, clear sonic ambience, and the orchestral playing is excellent. Naxos’s recording of the work, which also features Rautavaara’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 3, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu, is excellent as well, although the sound quality is a bit less rich and clean, and the birdsongs are perhaps even more aggressively prominent. Both admirers and despisers of Rautavaara’s work will know by now whether this recording is of interest to them; those who haven’t yet encountered his music and wonder whether he is a composer to pursue are referred to the several Naxos recordings of his music, which offer inexpensive opportunities to sample the flavors.