RAUTAVAARA: Symphony No. 3. Piano Concerto No. 1

RAUTAVAARA Symphony No. 3. Piano Concerto No. 1. Cantus Arcticus – Hannu Lintu, cond; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Laura Mikkola (pn) – NAXOS 8.554147 (73:32)

I’ve often reflected that, at least since about 1970, Finland seems to be home to the most artistically advanced musical culture in the world. I should hasten to add that this is just a vague impression; I’ve never been to Finland, nor claim do I claim any “inside” knowledge on the subject. But one factor contributing to this impression is the remarkable profusion — relative to the population — of really distinctive and original compositional voices. Although a number of my Fanfare colleagues probably have a more thorough knowledge of this area of the repertoire than I, it seems pretty clear that one of the most intriguing and rewarding of these voices is Einojuhani Rautavaara. (At this point, let me refer the interested reader to Martin Anderson’s fascinating and revealing interview with this prolific and wide-ranging figure in Fanfare 19:6.) This recent Naxos release offers an excellent introduction to Rautavaara’s music through three major works — each different from the other, but all quite accessible to the listener — that span the years 1959-1972.

Now in his early seventies, Rautavaara has achieved enough of a following — extending far beyond Finland alone — to have reached the point where the demand for new works is more than sufficient to enable him to live comfortably by writing the music to which he is inclined. The breadth and originality of his musical language resist easy characterization, but one might venture to say that Rautavaara’s is a voice confident enough to favor large statements and to make them clearly and coherently. He seems to have wrestled with the dilemma of attempting to meet the high standards of objective structural organization expected of serious music during this century, without relinquishing a dedication to sincere, spontaneous personal expression. On the one hand, his works use the orchestra with the flamboyant brilliance of Strauss, shaping intensely powerful dramatic statements. On the other hand, a favoring of gesture and texture over melody as basic structural elements, a willingness to resort to harsh dissonance, and an avoidance of classical forms and obvious tonality contribute to a certain elusiveness of meaning. The result is a “postmodern” language that actually coalesced while most composers in the United States and Western Europe were still caught in the strangle-hold of Modernist dogma at its most rigid and circumscribed.

Rautavaara composed the third of his seven symphonies in 1959-60. He has characterized it as a synthesis of the romanticism of his first symphony and the modernism of his second. The result is a work of epic posture if not dimension, postromantic in style, with unmistakable tonal orientation, yet based unequivocally on a twelve-tone row. Though its ethos is rooted in the symphonic music of the turn of the 20th century, it is not shaped according to conventional classical forms, but, unfolds along more original, organic lines. Maintaining a dark mood overall, the symphony has been aptly characterized as “Brucknerian,” although subtle reminiscences of Strauss, Mahler, Nielsen, Sibelius, and even Roy Harris appear throughout. The reader may infer something along the order of what Penderecki has been producing for the past twenty years or so, and this would not be inaccurate; and, as with Penderecki, a more distinctive melodic focus would give the work a stronger profile.

Many of the same qualities are true also for Rautavaara’s Piano Concerto No. 1, dating from 1969. The work opens with a grandeur comparable to Tchaikovsky’s No. 1, except that the main theme is articulated through a chain of tone-clusters, creating a jarring contrast between harsh dissonance and comfortably retrospective gestures. Again, classical forms are not readily apparent as the lengthy first movement unfolds. The second movement is hauntingly introspective, built around a series of mysteriously connected block triads, and leads, after a major climax, into the driving finale — really no more than a brief, but grim and determined, epilogue. Finnish pianist Laura Mikkola proves to be a soloist capable of both power and sensitivity.

Cantus Arcticus (1972) is one of Rautavaara’s best known works, largely because of its novel inclusion of pre-recorded bird sounds. Indeed, the composer has called it a “concerto for birds and orchestra,” and, integrated into the opulent, richly atmospheric music, the songs of these Arctic birds sound quite natural. Despite its unconventional sound-sources, the three-movement work is much more gratifyingly melodic than the other two discussed here, and provides pleasant, comfortable listening, very much like tasteful, high-quality background music written to accompany a travelogue shown on, say, PBS. Again, Rautavaara uses parallel triads in a way that suggests Roy Harris, but the composer who comes most readily to mind is Vaughan Williams — not surprisingly, the Sinfonia Antarctica, although the main theme of the third movement strongly suggests a passage from the Tallis Fantasia.Another piece that naturally comes to mind is Alan Hovhaness’s And God Created Great Whales, a work that integrates whale songs into an orchestral context. However, Rautavaara’s proves to be a far deeper, subtler,  more involved, and, ultimately, more compelling composition.

This release is highly recommended as an excellent and inexpensive means of becoming acquainted with a composer who may indeed prove to be one of the most significant voices of his generation. My only reservation is that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra tends to be a bit sluggish and ragged — not up to the level of some provincial Finnish orchestras I’ve heard via recordings.