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WGBH, May 2011

Einojuhani Rautavaara is as important to today’s Finland as Sibelius was to yesterday’s. The Helsinki Philharmonic has now recorded his orchestral work called “A Tapestry of Life”, written in 2007. It happens that I heard the premiere of this piece in Helsinki. The composer was sitting just a few rows ahead of me and I kept him fixed in the corner of my eye. He seemed deeply satisfied. I heard three performances and grew fonder of it with each one. Rautavaara had only recently recovered from a burst aorta (most people don’t recover!), and yet, at 79, he had a kind of towering warmth. This is a CD that deserves many focused listening sessions.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, October 2010

The Ondine label has for a while been building up a quietly spectacular catalogue of CDs with the work of Einojuhani Rautavaara. This impressive if rather brief contribution is every bit up to the standards of all concerned: composer, musicians and recording engineers.

Before the Icons started out life as a set of pieces for piano, though the imagination and creativity employed to make these orchestrations means that such origins are left so far behind as to be invisible. There is a certain quality to the harmonies which harks back to the 1950s, but this is part of the attraction of the music. If you like Panufnik, perhaps even at times Tippett, Vaughan Williams or other composers who were at their best in and around this period, then you will find a great deal to relish in the ten pieces which make up these Icons. This music shouldn’t be confused with other ‘icons’ which have arisen since, and this music isn’t particularly Holy, despite having titles which refer to Biblical subjects and characters. In his own booklet notes, Rautavaara colourfully fills in programmatic or descriptive content, but even without such literal pointers the splendour and drama of the music transcends single-message references. There are some unifying sonorities, such as the opening fanfare of The Death of the Mother of God, which can be compared to another moment 30 seconds into part 6, The Baptism of Christ. The whole piece does have an extra-musical quality which can be quite cinematic at times in an exotic, Cecil B. DeMille fashion. Again, this is not a criticism, but a way of getting some kind of handle on what to expect. There is much which is contemplative and spiritual without being overtly religious, there is much lyricism which manages to avoid over-sweet sentimentality, and there is a powerful and constant sense of drama which never loses its refinement and poise.

Although written over 40 years later, a similar description might apply to A Tapestry of Life. The underlying musical messages are more universal here, but the landscapes are also exotic and richly perfumed. Rautavaara has his melodies more often than not played in parallel seconds—a sort of invisible close-harmony which lends them an added astringency and tension, as well as enriching the textures as a whole - especially where the accompanying harmonies are relatively simple. The span of these four movements is generally longer than with the Icons and the feel is more timeless, though none of the movements is over 8 minutes.

The first movement, Stars Swarming, was inspired by a poem by Edith Södergran called The Stars. Both harp and tuned percussion add sparkle to a piece whose moodily shifting nocturnal harmonies build to a fleeting but high-impact climax. Halcyon Days lifts the mood, with rippling impressionistic colourations decorating rising harmonies. This movement is one of the highlights of the disc, and I admire its clarity of purpose, even though some might balk at its retro-romanticism. Sighs and Tears further develops the moods and colours of the previous movement in an extended lament which also shows how close the emotions of quiet joy and poignant sadness can appear to be. The Last Polonaise is “a variation of this solemn dance, which seems to have a special significance to [the composer], as a symbol of finality.” I was initially less convinced by this movement, reminding me of something once said about Willem Pijper: ‘if in doubt, Habanera’. Indeed, with the open tonalities and richness of orchestration there is more than just stodgily presented dance rhythms shared between this and other wood-panelled pieces from the 1930s. Ultimately it all fits however, with the Polonaise being just one of a number of elements in a movement which refers back to the previous movements, and which digs deep into dramas both dark and inspiring, though its sudden end does leave us wanting more.

This is an impressive and highly recommendable disc. Superbly recorded and performed, composer and conductor Leif Segerstam has assimilated Rautavaara’s idiom entirely, and draws a synergy of colour and expression from the Helsinki players which one can hardly imagine being bettered. This is real music which can be appreciated on many levels, and which should have a lasting place in contemporary performing repertoire.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, September 2010

Before the Icons (1955+2005) was originally a collection of six brief piano pieces on images seen in a book on icons the composer obtained in the mid-50s (the title refers to reactions while praying among these icons). To these six pieces, Rautavaara recently added three ‘Prayers’ and a concluding ‘Amen’ and orchestrated the lot. This Pictures at an Exhibition- like piece is the result. The material is linear, tuneful, tonally or modally harmonized, appropriately naive...A Tapestry of Life (2007) is a set of four lush, romantic pieces defaced sometimes by Rautavaara’s occasional penchant for “wrong note” harmony...The notes reveal that this piece was written after a recent illness where the composer came close to death.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, September 2010

I have to tell you, at the outset of this review, that I moved to this CD immediately after reading Jack Reilly’s book The Harmony of Bill Evans, Vol. 2 and listening to the accompanying CD, and that I found a great many similarities—more so than differences.

Einojuhan Rautavaara, who many probably do not know is the son of one of the greatest Mozart sopranos of the early 20th century (Aulikki, who sang the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro on the old Glyndebourne recording conducted by Fritz Busch), has always written music in an amorphic style in which mood is as important as form. These works are no exception, and by doing so he allies his sparse melodic structures to the very sort of underlying density in chord progressions that were the heart of Bill Evans’s jazz pieces.

Before the Icons spans a full half-century of composition. Rautavaara wrote a set of six impressions on Byzantine icons for piano in 1955, immediately planned to orchestrate them, but did not get around to it until 2005! At that time, he wrote three “prayers” to go between the icons, scored for strings to reflect the voice of the individual. Some of the iconic pieces are agitated, powerful music, particularly the first (The Death of the Mother of God) and last (Archangel Michael Fighting the Antichrist), but not always, while the prayers are gentle and reflective. As usual, it’s a fascinating piece, and if he hadn’t revealed its genesis, one would have a hard time imaging a half-century between its two parts.

A Tapestry of Life is based on various poems or stories that influenced him. Again, as the music is impressionistic, it transcends the words to produce a feeling rather than a narrative. “Stars Swarming” was inspired by a poem by Edith Södergran, a surrealistic nightly vision where stars keep falling in the garden until the lawn is full of splinters. “Halcyon Days” uses the simple, monotonous repetition of a triplet, which gives rise to a slowly ascending cantabile melody (shades of Bill Evans again). Rautavaara’s coloristic effects derive from his very French-based style of orchestration overlaid on his Finnish musical sensibilities.

I’ve been a fan of Leif Segerstam since the early 1970s and saw him conduct both La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera and his own works with the Cincinnati Symphony. For the life of me, I don’t understand why he is so undervalued (or, more often, ignored) as a conductor, as I consider him one of the greatest of the 20th century, but particularly in this music he gives his best because his own sensibilities are very close to Rautavaara’s. I urge you to get this record. It is a wonderful souvenir of both composer and conductor.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, August 2010

Ondine’s sound is superb as usual.

David Hurwitz, April 2010

Here we have one of the greatest living composers working in the full inspiration of his mature style, performed and recorded with world-class passion and intensity. It really doesn’t get any better. Before the Icons began life as a piano suite in 1955. In creating this orchestral version Rautavaara separated some of the individual numbers with interludes for string orchestra (“Prayers”) and added a concluding “Amen”. The music is wide-ranging and thoroughly approachable, though never cloying or cheap. Most of the “icon” movements feature the sound of bells as a unifying timbre, though the music isn’t at all “churchly” in a conventional sense. It’s a moving, even noble work, though it does have its lighter moments (the third movement: “Two Village Saints”).

A Tapestry of Life (2007) has four movements lasting a bit more than 24 minutes. The second piece, “Halcyon Days”, is stunningly lovely, while the concluding ”Final Polonaise” builds to a powerful, ominous close. Each of the four movements is well contrasted and expressively affecting. It’s great to have the opportunity to hear this music while it’s still new, and as mentioned above the performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic under Leif Segerstam is first rate. If you care even mildly about contemporary music, or just good classical music, you owe it to yourself to hear this disc.

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