, June 2010
Early One Morning is a compilation of marvelous Finnish orchestral music with a decided preference for lighter, more romantic fare. Not included on this album: excerpts from symphonies, serial music, atonal music; barely on this album: living composers. Honestly, I am fine with that. In fact, this two-disc set gave me great pleasure.
Both albums (these CDs were originally released separately by Naxos Finland) feature legendary Finnish conductor Jorma Panula—the man who taught Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vänskä, Mikko Franck, Ari Rasilainen, Sakari Oramo, and many more of today’s most distinguished podium personalities.
The first disc finds Panula at the helm of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded all the way back in 1790. That orchestra and conductor are a good match is evident from the first track, Jean Sibelius’s unavoidable Finlandia…it is a very strong, dramatic reading, and establishes immediately the strength of the Turku orchestra.
The second track is an elegy by Leevi Madetoja, from his Symphonic Suite No. 4, and is my favorite new discovery from the whole set. My original listening notes read: “Second track—gorgeous! Like Grieg, Suk, Chávez.” That may seem an unlikely trio, but they share with Madetoja an admirable ability to write formally precise and emotionally gripping music for string orchestra. Madetoja really knows how to write effective dialogue between the instruments, too. On the other hand, my notes refer to track 3, Oskar Merikanto’s Romance, as an “airy nothing” with a “trio homage to Dvorák Cello Concerto?” (Compare the cello tune at 2:04 to the Concerto’s opening theme.) The Romance again employs string orchestra, so this portion of the program made me wonder if Finlandia was a token bit of drama before a parade of light music.
The music stays “light,” at least in texture, but it does undergo a wonderful variation in mood and style. Merikanto’s Valse lente reintroduces the woodwinds, whose graceful solos dance around a shy main tune. Sibelius’ Valse triste receives maybe my favorite performance of the piece: Panula maintains a flexible tempo, the cheerier central sections breathing more easily than the hushed opening. This is a work which even those unfamiliar with “Finnish orchestral favorites” will have heard many times, but all the magic is still here.
Next up Panula presents another waltz, this time a cheery one, sly, funny, with brash trumpets that remind me of Shostakovich’s ballet music. It is Heikki Aaltoila’s Wedding Waltz for Akseli and Elina; it comes from a movie soundtrack, and it is also the third waltz in a row. After that is a prelude by Heino Kaski which to me sounds like an orchestrated piano piece. It actually is not, but the use of so many different instruments to carry the tune made me think that the orchestrator had something to hide.
With the next track and a sound which my notes refer to as “donkeys braying?!”, we arrive at one of the most substantial, and most recent, works on the disc: Einojuhani Rautavaara’s suite Fiddlers, Op 1, the only thing here by a living composer. (Vilho Luolajan-Mikkola, responsible for the first track on disc 2, died in 2005 but otherwise the music here is of the 20th century or slightly earlier.) The “donkeys” are in fact country fiddlers introducing a five-movement suite of dances in the style of rural folk music. Here are my full notes for Fiddlers, referring to CD track numbers because I was listening blind (that is, without the program or booklet to tell me what music was playing): “8, a very silly dance! Nine has an ominous violin solo married to other solos; 10 a dark modern combo of folk-tunes and faux Vivaldi. 12 another lively folk dance.” The fourth movement seems not to have made an impression, but in fact it is a slow episode featuring the cello.
We return to older-fashioned music with Toivo Kuula’s Wedding March, an exuberantly festive piece that even includes a gong. Erkki Melartin’s Festive March is the rather redundant follow-up, and its cheap bombast did not appeal to me. It did, though, leave me craving something sensitive, quiet, and emotionally fragile, which I promptly got: Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela, in one of the most exquisite performances I know. Panula’s way with this piece is all soft touches: listen to the French horn at 2:54, not demanding our attention but simply there, eerily, in the background. The English horn soloist (Satu Ala) is not spotlit by the engineers, either, so the solo is both immaculately played and naturally balanced with the orchestra. This is not an excessively romantic reading; I would like to think that its understated elegance would appeal to the composer.
Next up is Armas Järnefelt’s Prelude for Orchestra, which my notes refer to as “a cute, cheery riposte” bursting with woodwind color and jolly percussion. His Berceuse is very different, featuring a beautiful violin solo in a nocturnal atmosphere. Sibelius’ Andante festivo is next, and am I the first to note its main tune is a major-key version of one of the themes of Dvořák’s Ninth? At any rate, the Turku strings sing this one beautifully, and my notes contain the repeated word “luminous.” The Finnish Prayer which closes the CD is even more solemn and ends the disc with the prayer intoned by solo trumpet.
The second disc is less substantial than the first: its timing is nearly twenty minutes shorter, and some of its contents are miniatures for chamber orchestra. Everything else is miniatures for smaller ensembles which have been arranged for chamber orchestra by Jorma Panula himself; Panula’s arrangements make up thirteen of the eighteen tracks. The music again ranges from peaceable (Luolajan-Mikkola’s Wedding Dance, an anonymous Orphan’s Lament complete with cuckoo sounds) to jaunty (delicious waltzes by Konsta Jylhä and Erkki Melartin) to somber (nearly every selection by Sibelius). This time I noticed that there was a definite trajectory from pleasing light music to more introverted works over the course of the CD. The first three tracks are of one mindset, uniformly light-hearted and pretty, especially Merikanto’s Folk Song, with its slightly over-sweet harp filigree. The main body of the CD presents a successful mixture of different styles, and then the last four tracks bring matters to a decidedly serious close.
Panula’s orchestrations are all successes, amply pretty and with numerous solos for various members of the Camerata Finlandia. Particular successes are the marvelous arrangements of Kaski’s Goblins’ Tattoo and Jylhä’s comically titled Konsta’s Better Waltz, which is so charming that it would be anybody’s better waltz. I wonder if Naxos will give us a series of recordings of Panula’s own original compositions, which the booklet tells me include operas, sacred works and miniatures.
A few summary thoughts. First, when I first listened to this two-disc set I did so blindly, not looking at the program, in order to approach the music I had not heard (everything but Finlandia, Swan of Tuonela, and the Valse triste) with fresh ears. It is a surprise that, with just two exceptions, every time a work made me gasp, or hold my breath, or generally write down in my notebook a comment like “luminous! Yes, luminous,” the work in question was written by Sibelius. One exception was Melartin’s Butterfly Waltz (CD 2 track 12), and the other was Leevi Madetoja’s Elegy for Strings (CD 1 track 2), which has sent me on an exploration of Madetoja over the past week. I’ve now heard and enjoyed his Ostrobothnian and Pastoral Suites, on the Alba label, and the Symphony No 2, with the Iceland Symphony and Petri Sakari on Chandos.
The goal of this Naxos sampler, besides providing the listener with two very enjoyable if generally light programs, is to introduce the newcomer to little-known Finnish composers and leave listeners looking for more. My recent explorations of Finnish music, particularly Madetoja, demonstrate that Early One Morning is a success.
All that remains to be said is that the sound quality is generally very good, though a little closer and less precise on Disc 2, and that the Turku Philharmonic and Camerata Finlandia are excellent. The Naxos liner-notes provide ample good reading on every composer featured here. A terrific release.