September 17, 2009


Einojuhani Rautavaara: 12 Concertos. Elmar Oliveira, violin; Marko Ylönen, cello; Esko Laine, double bass; Reija Bister, harp; Marielle Nordmann, harp; Patrick Gallois, flute; Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Kari Jussila, organ, Ralf Gothóni, piano; Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Tapiola Sinfonietta; Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra; Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, Max Pommer, Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Juha Kangas, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductors. Ondine. $29.99 (4 CDs).

     What a wealth of music, and what a wealth of expression, is here! Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) is not exactly a household name, yet he is considered one of his nation’s greatest composers since Jean Sibelius. This wonderful four-CD set – a compilation of performances recorded between 1989 and 2004 – includes all concertos and concerto-like works that Rautavaara has composed to date. A number of them are quite wonderful, and practically all showcase different elements of this composer’s creativity.

     The works date to a variety of times in Rautavaara’s compositional life. The three piano concertos, for example, are from 1969, 1989 and 1998. All are in the traditional three movements, but all are quite different. Rautavaara wrote the first for himself, and it is fairly simple, since he is a good pianist but not a world-class one. The second was written for Ralf Gothóni, who performs it here, and the third (called “Gift of Dreams”) for Vladimir Ashkenazy, who plays and conducts it. In fact, Ashkenazy requested a work that he could both play and conduct, and that affected Rautavaara’s handling of the solo part. But what is interesting in listening to all three concertos is to hear how little the external elements – Ashkenazy’s request and Rautavaara’s own limited technique – affect the sound of the works. All three of the concertos blend cluster writing and other modernist techniques with a more classical approach, with some highlights being the concluding samba of No. 1 and the well-managed stylistic integration of No. 3.

     Rautavaara’s first string concerto was written in 1968 for cello; it is, in fact, his first concerto for any instrument. In the traditional three movements, it comes clearly from the Romantic tradition in its grand melodies and virtuoso writing for the solo performer. In 1977, Rautavaara wrote his Violin Concerto and was clearly at a different point in his thinking both stylistically and structurally. This is a two-movement work that ranges in style from the Romanticism of the Cello Concerto to a much more modern-sounding, texturally fragmented approach. Then, in 1980, Rautavaara wrote a concerto for double bass; it is called “Angel of Dusk” and has three movements subtitled (so to speak) beneath its overall title: “His First Appearance,” “His Monologue” and “His Last Appearance.” The second movement is the heart of the work, and its title is apt, since it is a very extended (almost nine-minute) cadenza for the soloist. Although in no way directly descended from the music of Giovanni Bottesini, the great 19th-century double-bass player who composed extensively for his instrument, Rautavaara’s concerto is a worthy successor, challenging both the virtuoso capabilities and the expressive capacity of the largest instrument in the string family.

     The harp is a string instrument as well, at least in a sense, and Rautavaara has written both a concerto-like one-movement Ballad for Harp and Strings (1973/1981) and a full-scale three-movement Harp Concerto (2000). The earlier, 10-minute work is pleasant and nicely constructed, but the later one is more unusual: Rautavaara decided to find a way to overcome the reality that the harp is easily drowned out by a full orchestra, so he scored the concerto to include two “assisting harps” that broaden the solo sound and give the harp’s delicacy a considerable boost. Both the harp concertos are interesting works with something of the experimental about them – not Rautavaara’s strongest concertos, but testimony to his skill in creating pieces for many types of solo instruments.

     There are wind concertos in this set, too. The four-movement Flute Concerto, titled “Dancing with the Winds,” dates to 1975 and actually requires the soloist to handle four instruments: concert flute, bass flute, alto flute and piccolo. Patrick Gallois is especially distinguished here, sounding equally at home with all four instruments and delivering lovely tone throughout – with the more piercing piccolo fitting the work’s scherzo beautifully. The Clarinet Concerto (2001) was written for and with the assistance of Richard Stoltzman, who plays it here with a fine combination of virtuoso dexterity and middle-movement songfulness.

     At the most basic level of sound production, the organ is a wind instrument, and Rautavaara has written a sort-of concerto for this grandest of instruments. It is called “Annunciations,” dates to 1977, and is for organ, brass quintet and symphonic winds. There is a certain mysticism to this concerto that may put some listeners in mind of Olivier Messiaen, for all the difference in sound and compositional technique. Strictly from a sonic standpoint, it is the second-most-unusual of Rautavaara’s concertos.

     The most unusual of all is the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, “Cantus Arcticus” (1972). The birdsong comes from tapes made by Rautavaara himself in northern Finland – and the taped birds contrast strangely and surprisingly effectively with the rather Romantic scoring of the orchestral part. Rautavaara is far from the first composer to use recorded birdsong – Respighi included a taped nightingale in Pines of Rome in 1924, causing controversy that still sometimes reemerges today – but Rautavaara handles the integration of the birds with the orchestra over a long period (almost 20 minutes) very effectively, creating a highly unusual work that has become one of his most popular.

     All the solo playing in this four-CD set is exemplary, and the orchestras – especially the Helsinki Philharmonic, which plays eight of these 12 works – handle their roles with a cogent understanding of and empathy for Rautavaara’s style. Now in his 80s, Rautavaara has not written a concerto since 2001 – but if he does write more, he could scarcely hope for them to be more effectively presented than are the dozen heard in this CD set.

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