Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.

Piano Music by Axel Borup-Jørgensen, a Lost Master?


axelpiano

I had reviewed another disc of this composer’s music on this label here and I must admit that it took me quite a while to meaningfully grasp the music of this too little known Danish composer (1924-2012).  It should be no secret that the Danes have had and continue to have a rich musical culture and have produced quite a number of world class composers and this man is no exception.  However his style, apparently gleaned from his association with the modernists of Darmstadt, can be a tough nut to crack.

As with the aforementioned disc one might require multiple listenings before coming to realize that this man has a unique style and one that bears some serious attention.  This disc of piano music (and one piece for celesta) fills a gap in his recorded repertoire and is an excellent opportunity to see how he works in the genre of keyboard music.

These ten tracks contain works written from 1949 to 1988 so they cover a significant portion of his career and illustrate the development of his style.  Pianist Erik Kaltoft, a longtime associate of the composer, demonstrates interpretive skill as well as virtuosity and dedication in this fascinating survey.

The first (and longest 11:29) piece is Thalatta! Thalatta! (1987-88) and is given the opus number of 127.  The exclamation of the title translates as, “The Sea! The Sea!” and is said to have been spoken by the Greek armies upon reaching the Black Sea during one of their campaigns.  It is an impressionistic piece about the many moods of the sea.  His harmonies are like a modern update of Debussy, a bit more dissonant but providing a similarly soft focused feel.

Continuing with the maritime theme are the 6 miniatures called Marine Sketches (1949) opus 4b.  It is one of the earliest compositions in this collection (along with the Miniature Suite opus 3b, also 1949, on track 8).  Each of the pieces lasts around one minute and there are no track breaks to separate them.  The composer seems to expect that they will always be performed together and with a total time of 6:53, why not?  In contrast to the first piece these contain more melodic contours with less overall dissonance but clearly the same compositional fingerprint.

The four Winter Pieces opus 30b (1959) contain more energetic rhythms but with strategic silences punctuating the overall flow.  They end with a brief epilogue.

From winter we move to another season with the Summer Intermezzi opus 65 (1971) comes back to the sound world of the first track.  Here he experiments with different techniques to expand the language of the keyboard and incorporates the strategic silences of the piece on the former track.

Track 5 contains the earliest piece in this collection, Pasacaglia opus 2b (1948) which seems to suggest some influence of Scriabin.  It is a classic set of variations over the initial bass line and has a rather romantic feel.

Raindrop Interludes opus 144 (1994) is an impressionistic suite with the more dissonant style of his other later pieces.  It is the most recently composed of the recorded selections.

Epigrams opus 78 (1976) at 9:15, is the second longest piece here.  This is one of the most abstract pieces on the disc and demands concentration from both the performer and the listener to perceive delicate statements made with a wide dynamic range.

The Miniaturesuite opus 3b concentrates a praeludium, fantasia, interludium, sarabande and a repeat of praeludium in a brief 2:49.  It is more melodic and less dissonant in keeping with the composer’s earlier style.

Praeludier opus 30a (1958-9) are seven pithy and brief preludes.

The last track contains Phantasiestùck opus 115 (1985) written for celesta.  This instrument, forever doomed to familiarity by its use  in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, has a limited repertoire and this gentle abstract piece is a welcome addition.  It is consistent with the composer’s late style using dissonance and silences in an almost meditative and strangely nostalgic piece.

The extensive and useful liner notes are by Trine Boje Mortensen and are printed in both Danish and English (translation by John Irons).  The fine recording and mastering are by Preben Iwan in the fine acoustics of the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  Grateful assistance and input from the composer’s daughter Elisabet Selin.

One needs to be cautioned never to take lightly anything produced from this creative country and this album is proof of that.  Kudos to OUR recordings for bringing this music to the listening public.

 

 

 

 

ICE in Iceland, Music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir


In the Light of Air Sono Luminus DSL 92192

In the Light of Air
(Sono Luminus DSL 92192)

For some years now I have greatly enjoyed the contemporary music coming out of the Nordic countries.  Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Faeroe Islands.  But I have also been aware of the truly rich musical culture of neighboring Iceland which, it seems, is less well known for its musical heritage.  Composers such as Jón Leifs and Thorkell Sigurbjornssen (among others) have created some wonderful music in the twentieth century that definitely needs to be heard more often and the present composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is certainly a rising star in the twenty-first century, a proud example of Iceland’s best

Þorvaldsdottir (in Icelandic script) was born in 1977 in Iceland.  She earned a B.A. in music composition at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2004 and went on to an M.A. and Ph.D. in composition at the University of California, San Diego finishing in 2011.  She has received numerous awards, most recently the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012 for her orchestral work, “Dreaming” (2008).

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Her music can be found on 8 CD releases of which three, including the present disc, are devoted entirely to her works. The other two discs devoted to her music can be found on Deutsche Grammaphon  and, now only available as a digital download, a disc originally released on Bandcamp and now also available on Innova.  Worth noting is another disc on the Sono Luminus label that contains her chamber work, “Shades of Silence” (2012).  Here her work is presented along with that of several other Icelandic composers placing her in context with her peers.

In the Light of Air (2013-2014) is a five movement suite written for and performed by ICE (The International Contemporary Ensemble).  The work is scored for viola, piano, cello, percussion, fixed electronics and installation. There is an intended visual component here and there is a high definition video of a performance of this work on Vimeo.  It puts this reviewer in the mind of the work of George Crumb some of whose chamber works (Black Angels and Vox Balenae for example) require various stagings that are not conventional in standard chamber music performances.  You can judge for yourself as to whether the staging enhances the work but the music does stand on its own.

The five movements, Luminance, Serenity, Existence, Remembrance and Transitions flow seamlessly into one another evoking a dream-like, even impressionistic feeling.  It would appear that this composer has studied a great deal of compositional techniques and has integrated those most useful to her in her work.  We hear microtones, glissandi, harmonics, alternate tunings, vocalizations, drones, even some spectral passages.  But throughout these techniques do homage to the past by their use in this clearly 21 st Century music.  There is an overall mysterious, somber and meditative tone that seems to evoke the sometimes barren landscapes of the composer’s native Iceland.  She seems  to travel in sound worlds not too distant from Morton Feldman but also Pauline Oliveros with a dash of Debussy perhaps. I don’t know, but quality (and sometimes lack) of light north of the Arctic Circle must certainly affect the way people think and create.  But keep in mind that Iceland consistently makes the top ten lists for happiest countries in the world. Perhaps funding for the arts, such as they provide, contributes to that happiness.  When the result is music like this one can’t help but feel at least hopeful.

ICE executes the performance with their usual virtuosity and care adding another significant work to their large and growing repertoire of contemporary music.  The recording, in keeping with the Sono Luminus mission is lucid and detailed.  (Unfortunately I was unable to evaluate the DVD 5.1 audio which is included in this release.  I have no doubt that this is a great listening experience but that will have to wait until I upgrade my sound system.)

Having heard this disc and some of the excerpts of other works available on the composer’s web page I think this is an artist whose work certainly deserves attention and one whose star will no doubt rise further.   Kudos to Sono Luminus on promoting this music.  Highly recommended.