April 24, 2008


Einojuhani Rautavaara: Apotheosis (revised version of fourth movement of Symphony No. 6, “Vincentiana”); Manhattan Trilogy; Symphony No. 8, “The Journey.” New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

      Einojuhani Rautavaara is scarcely a household name, but the Finnish composer, who turns 80 this year, has been producing consistently interesting works with a strong personal stamp for decades – especially so since he began devoting himself full-time to composition in 1990. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, based in the far south of the world, may not seem to have a natural affinity for the work of someone from the planet’s far north, but it is testimony both to the universality of Rautavaara’s work and to the increasingly fine quality of the New Zealand players that this CD sounds quite idiomatic throughout. And it certainly does not hurt to have the New Zealanders led by Finnish violinist/conductor Pietari Inkinen, who is now the orchestra’s music director.

      All the works here are surprisingly accessible, flirting with tonality when not embracing it wholeheartedly, and always showing skill in orchestration, rhythmic design and pacing. Apotheosis, a 1996 reworking of a movement from a symphony that was in turn based on Rautavaara’s opera Vincent, is very melodic, with lush strings handled in ways that will remind listeners of Shostakovich (clearly an important influence on Rautavaara, who however never overtly imitates the older composer). A bubbling clarinet and lovely wind touches add to the emotional effectiveness of the work.

      Manhattan Trilogy is the most recent piece here, finished in 2004 and first performed in 2005. It opens with “Daydreams,” which is brooding, then gently meandering, featuring effective solo violin and flute touches. Then comes “Nightmares,” a quick movement of building intensity, more disturbed and dissonant than “Daydreams” but more dramatic than frightening. Last is “Dawn,” an impressionistic movement filled with wistful and hopeful elements that ebbs and flows until it eventually more or less evaporates. The suite is effectively orchestrated and packed with notable instrumental touches: winds, bells, harp and more.

      Rautavaara’s Symphony No. 8 dates to 1999. A lot happens in its half-hour length. The first and longest movement swells and rises in intensity, and structurally (like Apotheosis) handles its string passages a bit as Shostakovich handled his. The movement grows largely by adding instruments to its thematic groupings, although the effect is very different from that of a Rossini crescendo: the music becomes increasingly passionate until its climax, then fades slowly. The second movement, marked Feroce, is short and intense, with lots of brass and percussion, and leads immediately into the atmospheric third movement, which opens with solo horn playing over spare-sounding violins. The pacing here is slow, but the constantly varied instrumentation keeps the music interesting. The finale opens with bells that intone a message of solemnity; then the movement grows in intensity and strength to a powerful conclusion – evidence that Rautavaara’s popularity, which is currently increasing, deserves to grow still more.

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