March 02, 2017


Sibelius: Kullervo; Finlandia; Olli Kortekangas: Migrations. Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano; Tommi Hakala, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir and Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $39.99 (2 SACDs).

Johan Halvorsen: Violin Concerto; Nielsen: Violin Concerto; Johan Svendsen: Romance. Henning Kraggerud, violin; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset. Naxos. $12.99.

Bach: Organ Music—Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542; Italian Concerto, BWV 971; Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544; Trio Sonata in G, BWV 530; Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C, BWV 564; Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Christopher Houlihan, organ. Azica. $16.99.

     Sibelius’ Kullervo dates to 1891-92 and Olli Kortekangas’ Migrations to 2014, but the works have more in common than their 120-plus years of separation would suggest. Sibelius thought of Kullervo as a symphony “in the Finnish spirit,” although it is really more of a gigantic tone poem (over 70 minutes long) based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, to which Sibelius would return time and again during his career. A tale of heroism and large-scale mythic events, the Kalevala was understandably attractive to a composer who, although always more comfortable in the Swedish language than in Finnish, had a strong affinity for grand gestures and opulent orchestration in the service of Finnish nationalism. In five movements marked Introduction, Kullervo’s Youth, Kullervo and His Sister, Kullervo Goes to War, and Kullervo’s Death, Sibelius not only traces the life of the hero but also produces a work on the grandest of scales – and using the unusual vocal forces of a male choir, solo baritone and solo mezzo-soprano. It was a striking idea of Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra – an ensemble deeply imbued with the Scandinavian heritage of so many residents of its home area – to commission Kortekangas (born 1955) to create a work for much the same forces (excluding only the solo baritone) to acknowledge and celebrate a journey different from but allied to Kullervo’s: that of many Finns to the United States. Wisely, Kortekangas made no attempt here to emulate Sibelius’ style despite the overlap of performers. He chose poetic texts from two collections by Sheila Packa, Echo and Lightning and Cloud Birds, and used them to produce a work far more modest in scale than Kullervo but hinting at the grand, if mundane, adventures that brought ordinary rather than mythic figures across the ocean and into a new and often very harsh land, where they set down roots anew. Using four vocal sections and three instrumental interludes, Kortekangas manages to convey much of the emotion, from the human-scale heroic to the uncertain, with which the Finnish migration was imbued. Less grand and less compelling then Kullervo, Kortekangas’ work is nevertheless a fine companion piece that stands well beside Sibelius’ huge tone poem. The strong, committed, thoroughly idiomatic readings on a new two-SACD release from BIS, recorded in splendid sound at three live performances, are just about everything that a listener could desire in these works. And the rousing version of Finlandia that concludes the release – and uses the male choir for the famed “hymn” section – both sums up and broadens a tribute to Finland and the Finnish people that, although quite specific in design, effectively reaches out to any and all people who have looked for inspiration to their mythic tales and the bravery and pluck of their ancestors.

     What is new on a new Naxos CD is not new at all in one sense – but is quite contemporary in another. The Violin Concerto by Carl Nielsen’s near-contemporary, Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), dates to 1907-08. But it disappeared shortly after its first performance in 1909. It was rediscovered as recently as 2015 – the year after Kortekangas wrote Migrations, making this a very recent occurrence indeed. Halvorsen’s concerto bears a striking resemblance in some ways to Nielsen’s of 1911, but in other ways these two notably Nordic works are quite different. Juxtaposing them in performances as fine as those of Henning Kraggerud with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Bjarte Engeset provides an opportunity to hear and enjoy both the similarities and the distinctions between the two works. Halvorsen’s concerto is more thoroughly lyrical, more imbued with Romantic spirit, and more clearly influenced by Norwegian folk music, featuring definite effects drawn from the Hardanger fiddle. Nielsen’s concerto is broader, significantly larger in scale (running about 50% longer), cast in an unusual two-movement form, and for much of its length almost anti-virtuosic in its determination to highlight the violin’s warmer and more expressive qualities. Kraggerud has clearly studied both works carefully and manages to imbue each with its own individual character while, at the same time, showing the rhythmic and harmonic similarities, along with the roughly comparable overall treatment of tonality, that make a comparison and contrast of the works attractive. The CD includes, as an encore, the lovely 1881 Romance by Johan Svendsen (1840-1911), a gently lulling piece more thoroughly of the Romantic era than either concerto, and more straightforward than the longer pieces in its simplicity and expressiveness. This is an unusual CD primarily because it offers Halvorsen’s concerto in its world première commercial recording, but it is also unusual for its particularly well-chosen repertoire and for the way in which violinist and conductor alike show their affinity for music of this era and this geographical region.

     Organist Christopher Houlihan clearly has great affinity for Bach – it is hard to imagine an organist who does not – but Houlihan’s (+++) handling of half a dozen Bach pieces on a new Azica CD is an example of an exploration that goes astray all too often. Houlihan sees Bach’s music as a template upon which to impose his own notions of how the music should or could go. There is no historic performance practice or understanding here – indeed, Houlihan rather defiantly proclaims through these readings that the “historic” way is not his way and not really Bach’s way, either. Just as some pianists offer Bach with Romantic-era sound and flourishes on an instrument that the composer never knew, so Houlihan takes full advantage of the capabilities of a modern organ to produce swells, registration changes, and impressive crescendos and decrescendos that make the music sound very little like Bach and a great deal like what pop music performers call a “cover” of Bach. This is not Bach with, for example, a jazz overlay, or indeed with any overlay at all: the notes are Bach’s and the works proceed as Bach intended them to in terms of movement sequences and, more or less, tempos. One work, the Italian Concerto, is specifically labeled as being arranged by Houlihan, and listeners familiar with Bach’s original will certainly notice some differences. But where Houlihan’s approach really strikes out on its own is in the four fugues on the CD. Clarity of line is the sine qua non of this musical form, and that is one of the big reasons for preferring the keyboard instruments of Bach’s own time – harpsichord, clavichord, organ – to those of later eras, which are designed for very different purposes. Houlihan looks for sumptuousness of sound and expressiveness of emotion in these fugues, employing all the resources of his organ (which was built in 1971 and remodeled in 2013) to produce sound that is full, intense and distinctly modern. There is no question that Houlihan shines a different light on this music than do performers more concerned with what Bach wrote and what instruments he wrote for. For that reason, listeners already thoroughly familiar with these works may find the Houlihan interpretations salutary and intriguing. But they are decidedly not the first choice in this music for anyone who wants to hear what Bach planned to communicate, performed in the way that he intended and in which he – a famously skilled organist – surely performed the music himself.

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