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Mark Sealey
Classical Net, January 2011

Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) is Finland’s most prominent living composer; he can also be considered (one of) that country’s greatest composers since Sibelius. Yet his music can too often be music which you think you know (and don’t); or which is known only from one or two examples (the Cantus Arcticus, for example); or which is mischaracterized, misunderstood even…the amorphous output of a latter-day Romantic “also ran”! If you think you might (blushingly and/or secretly) find yourself with such an understanding, then this admirable set of four CDs from Ondine will serve as a tonic. If you’re familiar with Rautavaara’s music, you’ll also be glad of this set: it contains in some cases the only, in others (also) the best, recordings of this very important area (the concerti) of Rautavaara’s work.

Indeed, the eleven pieces named as “concerto” (some have subtitles…“Dances with the Winds” (flute concerto), “Angel of Dusk” (double bass), “Gift of Dreams” (3rd piano) and “Annunciations” (organ, winds) as well as the aforementioned Cantus Arcticus (birds) in the set plus the Ballad for Harp and Strings are among Rautavaara’s most characteristically beautiful, gentle and penetratingly original works. “Original” is an important concept. The music is largely tonal, but it inhabits a sound world of great depth and confidence, in the ways, almost, in which the symphonies of, say, Schumann, Brahms and Sibelius himself did.

Rautavaara’s concerti also occupy a somewhat conventional position in the variety of forms the concerto can take, from its origins as an integrated form for members of the Baroque orchestra, through soloist-as-hero/heroine in the late nineteenth century, back to concerti for orchestra. For Rautavaara the model is definitely one of opposition—the soloist in conflict with the orchestra. The soloist stands out and stands for the individual, perhaps irretrievably, and uncompromisingly, against all-comers.

But Rautavaara’s are not concerti of robust, bombastic or unduly bravura mien. Maybe that’s because Rautavaara’s music is essentially gentle (though not genteel), serious (though not grave) and thoughtful (though not ponderous). His concerti have a lot to say aside from the interests in the counter-play of instrument and orchestra. They’re neither races (to the loudest realm, or first to finish) nor foregone conclusions. Through-composed, they sensitively and comfortably explore the result of privileging the themes, textures and sounds generally of one instrument (at times, Yes, even pitching it) against others. Yet for Rautavaara each solo instrument still always belongs to the orchestra “against” which it is working. It’s capable, for example, of the same degrees of variety and surprise as is a full orchestra; and is never the wayward child of other writers in the form. An amazing balance, in short, between control and expression.

The cello concerto, the second piece on the first CD, sets the tone: the cello itself is the first instrument to be heard, as a solo, in the first concerto (from 1968) by Rautavaara. Written at a time when the composer had already four symphonies, the opera Kaivos and three string quartets to his credit, it hints (stylistically and in terms of musical priorities) at what would occupy him for over a decade. In hindsight, it’s as though Rautavaara wanted to carry out a systematic exploration of how the different instruments and instrumental combinations would work. Thankfully, the music is much more organic, spontaneous and generally fresh. It’s nevertheless instructive to look for common ground.

The violin concerto (1977) is also highly virtuosic and melodious. It displays the instrument’s tonally lighter characteristics well. Elmar Oliveira makes as good a violin soloist—vigorous yet sensitive—as Marko Ylönen does cellist. Both instrumentalists clearly know the music, its idiom and the intentions of the composer very well. The first CD concludes with the a concerto for an instrument for which not many such exist: the double bass. You might expect gloom, brood and darkness of mood. Not at all. It’s an at times quite fragmented piece with pizzicato as well as arco passages, and immediate alternations between the two. Rautavaara’s gift for lyricism nevertheless is evident throughout. At over 26 minutes, “Angel of Dusk” (the concerto for double bass) is one of the longest concerti on the whole set. Only two of the other named concerti (“Annunciations”, “Gift of Dreams”) are comparable in scope. The orchestra is the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

This sequencing of works is a positive feature of this Ondine collection. They are grouped in ways that reflect contrasting mood as much as the convenience of putting like with like. The entire listening experience is stimulating and satisfying. That’s also due, without doubt, to the inevitably different soloists—even two different harpists, and both Ralf Gothóni and Vladimir Ashkenazy as pianists in concerti 1, 2 and 3 respectively—as well as a total of seven separate conductors. It’s a testament to the quality of this enterprise that those common factors which need to be carried across all the works (the composer’s gift at orchestration, the integrity of his palette and steady-handed architectural construction) do indeed emerge as constants. Yet at the same time the room for individual interpretation of the particularities are never stifled for the sake of spurious consistency.

The second CD also contains three works. As in the violin and cello concerti on the first, and indeed the three pieces on CD 3 and the final piano concerto, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is on top form in the Harp Concerto (2000) and “Cantus Arcticus” (1972). Restrained, full, sonorous yet not overbearing for all their fluency in and with Rautavaara’s style. The Ballad for Harp and Strings (1973/1981) uses the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. It’s a subtle piece without the grander conception of other of the composer’s concerti. It’s nevertheless a very pleasing piece with Reija Bister’s playing highlighting the qualities of the harp which make it a suitable solo instrument in an orchestral context. Similarly, Marielle Nordmann exposes those less idyll- and tuneful-like sonorities in the Harp Concerto, which is twice as long, ought to sound twice as weighty with three downbeat movements, but in fact is full of life. Interestingly, it’s scored for two harps in the body of the orchestra, which “assist” the soloist. The “Cantus Arcticus” remains, of course, one of Rautavaara’s most often played works. The bird song he taped himself in northern Finland. Segerstam takes the three melancholy movements more slowly than do other conductors in other recordings. Although this does not increase the sense of desolation which distinguishes the concerto, nor particularly add to the atmosphere, it somehow focuses slightly greater attention on the taped components.

CD 3 has the flute (1975), clarinet (2001) and organ, brass quintet and wind (1977) concerti. The first is perhaps the slightest of the three, seeming at times to meander as much as to make an impact by virtue of memorable themes and textures. On reaching its conclusion, however, the listener is left with a sense of certain qualities which the flute possesses—as may happen with a more explicitly impressionistic composer like Debussy. An early work, it’s actually written for four instruments: concert and bass flutes in the outer movements and piccolo then alto flute in the second and third respectively. Given the disparate tempi of the four movements of the work, both Patrick Gallois (soloist) and Segerstam have kept the interest up well. Richard Stoltzman’s clarinet playing is equally convincing in the much later Clarinet Concerto. The work was written for him; he gave its first performance too. It’s a dramatic (almost rhetorical) and determined work. There are almost jazzy passages, though it hasn’t the “swing” of the Ebony Concerto. In the cases of both these concerti for wind instruments and those for the harp, the balance between quieter instruments (even Stoltzman’s playing is soft, if not quite subdued) and orchestra has been well achieved. “Annunciations” for organ, brass quintet and “symphonic wind orchestra“ should be seen as another wind concerto…the organ is technically also a wind instrument. For all the piece’s stamp of definiteness and certainty, it has a strong mystical tinge, which is well conveyed by Kari Jussila and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, again under Segerstam. Starting slowly, it uses color and changes in texture to achieve some remarkable effects. It may remind you of Bartók and Messiaen—but is to be considered as much its own work as any other of the pieces on this set. The performance is notable in the way it makes such an approachable whole from music which could sound fragmented and sporadic. The organ a sense of fragility concerto shares with the music for flute. Like the wind, we feel the music more while we’re actually listening to it; like the wind we cannot forget its effects after it’s gone. This is not,though, wispy or ephemeral music; nor is it dense or stolidly immovable. The performers obviously understand this very well.

The three piano concerti (from 1969, 1989 and 1998) take up the final CD. They’re very different works—although all from the composer’s neo-Romantic period—with very different conceptions of the soloist’s role. The first Piano Concerto dates from 1969, the same time as the Cello Concerto, and was actually written for Rautavaara himself to play, limited though his keyboard prowess apparently was. Ralf Gothóni (with the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Max Pommer) is full of confidence and clarity in moving the work’s three movements forward at just the right pace. It’s perhaps the least typical of Rautavaara’s most familiar styles. There are even passages redolent of Gershwin. Gothóni is right, though, to present these in such as way as to suggest we should accept a wider spectrum of styles as typical of the composer than perhaps we do. The same soloist (for whom it was written) is just as clean and unambiguous in the Second Concerto from 20 years later—this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. This is a more experimental and quizzical work. There is much to latch onto and marvel at, though at times one feels the performance lacks the atmosphere which so many other of the composer’s works rely on. In the third piano concerto Vladimir Ashkenazy is both soloist and conductor with/of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra again. Again, the concerto was written for him; since he was conducting, certain complexities (particularly the absence of frequent changes in time signature) were avoided. A move towards, if not lushness, then greater coherence in the feel of the concerti can be detected from the first to the second to the third concerto. If you’re fond of Rautavaara’s lushness, wry harmonics and very open and even relationship with the natural world, the piano concerti might at first be disappointing. But the playing of the soloists and the way they support Rautavaara’s idiom (the third, for example, stops—almost in mid phrase) ought to go some way towards adjusting your expectations, and adjusting them for the better.

Definitely a set to seek out and buy if the composer, his style, or the particular blend of late twentieth (and indeed contemporary) orchestral music appeals, or makes you curious. It’s a musical world that is aware of pantonality, acoustic experiment, instrumental nuance and a flair for melodic, timbral and harmonic richness mixed with a rather fragile transparency; and has a lot to say to listeners of many predispositions. The acoustics are close and appropriately vital. The booklet that comes with the boxed set is a little slim at under a dozen substantive pages. The recordings for the most part are already existing ones—and from a variety of venues and recording sessions. To have them grouped so attractively, and at such a very reasonable price too, is a delight. Warmly recommended.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, December 2009

Over the years Rautavaara has spoken to audiences in a variety of styles. Some of his works are strongly avant-garde; others are more lyrically accessible. Whichever style you encounter he always orchestrates with stark yet poetic clarity.

The Violin Concerto is getting on for three decades old. In two movements, the first of these is extremely lyrical with the violin often dizzyingly high in its range. It operates quietly—a picture in sound of an ice cavern: crystalline, glistening; The Lark Ascending meditating on the Berg concerto or the Szymanowskis. The second movement is more explosive. In both movements the composer keeps in touch with the Finnish countryside and especially in the first there are links with the nature painting of his remarkable Cantus Arcticus. Oliveira digs deeply into his role. I am pleased that we have the even, yet intensely succulent and poignant tone of Oliveira to present this work to the world. The work was written in New York with technical assistance from Eugene Sarbu.

The compact Cello Concerto saws away deep in the auburn territory between baritone and bass—heavy with premonition and a chant-like soul. It marks in undiluted lyrical terms a turning away from dodecaphony. Textures are left bare yet never Spartan. Some of the writing is reminiscent of Barber (sultry) and Schuman (springy, powered and athletic) yet more melodic than either of them—the mark of his New York years perhaps.

Olli Kosonen worked with Rautavaara on Angel of Dusk—the Concerto for Double Bass and recorded it for Finlandia. The lustrous canvas gleams in the hands of Esko Laine and the Tapiola Sinfonietta. This is at one level yet the music surges with tidal power at lower levels. The last two movements hum with dark chaotic tension and cello acts as a tireless cantor redolent of the relationship between solo and orchestra in Rubbra’s Soliloquy (Cello Classics and Lyrita). Especially in the finale one is occasionally reminded in the string writing of 1960s Penderecki but the dominance here is lyrical. The recording used here has been licensed from Bis (BIS-CD-910)—credit to the two companies for such open-minded collaboration in the interests of Ondine’s enlightened endeavour on behalf of Rautavaara. Angel of Dusk is part of the composer’s Angels series: Angels and Visitations, Playgrounds for Angels and Angel of Light.

We next hear two works for harp and orchestra. The overture-length Ballad is both Baltic-poetic and wildly emotional. It shudders with fracture lines. The music reminds me of a sort of avant-garde extension of Sibelius’s The Bard—more emotionally candid. The Harp Concerto is in three movements. The solo—here played by Marielle Nordmann—is bolstered by two ‘assisting’ harps which enable the harp voicings to be heard above the otherwise overpowering phalanx of orchestral sound. The music is at the surface redolent of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro and Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Danses Profanes. There’s a superb fullness of heart and generous eloquence of romantic expression about the slightly Vaughan Williamsy central movement and the gloriously romantic-filmic finale. CD 2 ends with the work through which I discovered Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus. I can be precise. It was 15 June 1982 when the BBC broadcast a performance in which Ian Reid conducted the University of London Orchestra in the work’s first UK broadcast. The work was written in Oulu in 1972 and uses the lonely-sounding birdsong recordings the composer had made in northern Finland as the solo voices. The noble grand theme carried by the baritonal strings at 3:20 onwards in the first movement never fails to make an impact; neither does its counterpart in the finale: man and nature—eternity and transience. I do not prefer this recording to the atmospheric tape I have of the 1982 broadcast or the Finlandia version by the Klemetti Institute Symphony Orchestra with Pertti Pekkanen. The others allow a more elusive atmosphere to pervade but cannot compare in audio-technical terms. The admirable Ondine team have produced a recording of great forward immediacy and directness not always apt to this wonderful and emotionally overpowering work. It superbly brings off a marriage between real birdsong and the orchestra—something Messiaen steered clear of doing and is infinitely more subtle than say Respighi’s The Birds. It is a visual counterpart to the French film: Winged Migration.

On CD 3 we first encounter the Flute Concerto. It’s not quite what it seems from the title. Each of the four movements deploys a different instrument: concert flute, piccolo, alto flute and bass flute. It’s a multi-faceted piece with suggestions along the way of a Baltic faun, a stomping Til Eulenspiegel figure, the grand emotional nobility of a typical Rautavaara string theme and a dash more 1970s modernism than usual. The Clarinet Concerto was written specifically for the player here, the American soloist Richard Stoltzmann. The characteristic nobility of Rautavaara’s slowly blossoming themes can be heard here. This is alongside Stoltzmann’s virtuosity and poignant emotionalism—try the central and very touching Adagio assai and the end of the first movement which reminded me of Nyman. The finale has more tragic violence abut it than usual. The work was written in close cooperation with Stoltzmann. The Annunciations Concerto is for organ, brass quintet and symphonic wind orchestra. Mysteries, Paeans and Furies inhabit its pages alongside other now well-recognised Rautavaara hallmarks: the flutter of avian voices and an innate nobility.

The final CD sensibly couples the three piano concertos: 1969, 1989 and 1998. The Piano Concerto No. 1 was written as a vehicle for the composer as pianist. He toured it around Finland. It’s clangour and clamour carries a noble light-filled theme clearly related to the grand string orchestra themes used in Cantus Arcticus. Much of the solo writing is epic and quarry-hewn colossal. The Piano Concerto No. 2 is a shade less angular but just as tidally propulsive, swirling, troubled-surreal and at times rhetorical—something of an emotional whirlpool of a piece. The Piano Concerto No. 3 Gift of Dreams was written with Ashkenazy’s wish that the work be written to allow him to conduct from the keyboard. The first movement is calmly hieratic—with the music operating like a spell for nobility- an invocation. The strings sing out in massed power before stony heroic affirmation from the piano which fades down into a shaded peace. This forms a seamless segue into the calming Adagio assai which is yet not without rhetoric and granitic dissonance from the piano soloist. Strange how the solo piano part made me think of John Ireland (Legend and Concerto) and Bax (Symphonic Variations and Winter Legends). The final Energico has the bubbling wind writing of Cantus Arcticus but is overall a thornier and more apocalyptically angular work than the title might have lead you to believe. That said, its final bell-swung pages leave a glow that will draw you back.

The terse and to-the-point liner-notes are by Kimmo Korhonen and are in English and Finnish.

The overarching commitment and sympathetic insights of different engineers, conductors and orchestras are patent.

It is perhaps important to note that this box does not include all Rautavaara’s concertos. It does not make this claim. It does not for example include the Percussion Concerto Incantations.

These recordings were produced in collaboration with the composer between 1991 and 2005 and have been previously released to international popular and critical acclaim. Their original issue and provenance is given in the head-note.

Ondine has the field to itself as a single collected edition of the Rautavaara concertos. The rewards are great so don’t hesitate if you are at all interested or tempted. If the idea of twelve concertos by Rautavaara is too much then don’t overlook exploring individual discs including the Naxos version of piano concertos 2 and 3.

This superb box is a wonderful successor to Ondine’s similar 4 CD venture for the eight symphonies on ODE1145-2Q. The two sets make ideal companions.

Rautavaara’s artistic journey is always powerful and often directly accessible, nuanced and patently sincere.

Jason Victor Serinus
San Francisco Classical Voice, November 2009

The four CDs in Rautavaara: Concertos, from Ondine, will expand your love for the 81-year-old Finnish composer’s oeuvre far beyond his wondrous, best-selling “Cantus Arcticus” Concerto for Birds and Orchestra. Three concertos for piano and orchestra (played by dedicatees Ralf Gothóni and Vladimir Ashkenazy) join others on violin, cello, double bass, harp, flute, and clarinet (with its dedicatee, Richard Stoltzman). There’s also a concerto for the unusual combination of organ, brass quintet, and symphonic wind orchestra, plus a Ballad for Harp and Strings.

Edith Eisler
Strings Magazine, November 2009

The expression worn by the handsome Finnish composer in his cover photograph, taken in 1948, seems quite in keeping with his provocative statement that his concertos symbolize the dramatic conflict between the individual (the soloist) and the collective (the orchestra). Though different, these works, written over four decades and featured on a four-CD set, share several traits: the juxtaposition of opposites; the violent contrasts between dynamics, textures, colors, and moods; the colorful orchestration; and the tendency to stretch the soloists’ technical and tonal resources. In the violin, cello, and bass concertos, the solo parts go into the highest stratosphere and require the players to produce double-stops, chords, jumps, high-speed runs, and every imaginable sound effect. The performances by three consummate string virtuosos are quite breathtaking, as is that of the Clarinet Concerto, played here by its dedicatee, Richard Stoltzman.

The three Piano Concertos are full of tone clusters, instrumental fireworks, and effects. Rautavaara (b. 1928) wrote the first one for himself in 1969, the second 20 years later for his great compatriot Ralf Gothóni, who gives a stunning performance of both, and the third for Vladimir Ashkenazy, who also conducts.

David Hurwitz, September 2009

Okay, the Ballade for Harp and String Orchestra technically isn’t a concerto, but who’s counting? Rautavaara’s concertos are arguably more consistent and representative than his symphonies. The First Piano Concerto, the earliest work here, exudes the sort of spiky Finno-Russian neoclassicism that we find in Englund and Shostakovich, but from the Second Piano Concerto on Rautavaara is very much his own man, and every one of these pieces, even the relatively gnarly concertos for organ and double bass, are well worth getting to know. Several strike me as flat-out masterpieces, including the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Violin Concerto, the Harp Concerto, and of course Cantus Arcticus for taped birds and orchestra.

Furthermore, the performances are all first rate, from Ralf Gothóni and Vladimir Ashkenazy in the piano concertos, to Elmar Oliveira, Richard Stolzman, and Patrick Gallois in the concertos for violin, clarinet, and flute, respectively. The orchestral accompaniments leave nothing to be desired either, and the engineering is uniformly excellent. All of these works have appeared previously in Ondine’s Rautavaara edition…but coupling them this way makes an ideal introduction to the composer and his special sound world. I just hope this set, which inevitably has a retrospective feel to it, doesn’t mean that Rautavaara will not continue to produce symphonic works and concertos despite the ill-health he has suffered recently. By all means, indulge!

Peter Bates
Audiophile Audition, September 2009

Like the German composer Paul Hindemith, Finish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara loves composing concertos with diverse instruments. You get to hear them all in this stimulating collection, one that proves that in the field of composition, he can do just about anything—even be bad. This is the only collection of his concertos and it is splendidly performed. Try some of the unusual ones first. His Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet and Symphonic Wind Orchestra, early in the score, bursts the pious mode that’s chained organ music for past five centuries. Like an impish child, it peeks around corners and startles with its concoctions: a warbly instrument (an Ondes Martenot? A theremin?), brash percussion, inventive string accompaniment. His Concerto for Birds and Orchestra (“Cantus Articus”) is his strangest, although composers have incorporated animal sounds before in their works. (Alan Hovhaness loved his whales.) But this piece really does conjure up a sense of place: With its pre-recorded bird sounds and hypnotic strings, it suggests a trip to the shivery arctic tundra.

The Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra (“Angel of Dusk”) is a knotty, dense work with Esko Laine on the double bass. His cadenza in the middle of the work astounds. There are three piano concertos, two as bright and daring as Bartok’s…The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra and the one for Clarinet and Orchestra are spunky works, particularly with Patrick Gallois and Richard Stoltzman performing. Listen to the short and sweet Vivace in the Concerto for Flute and you may not be able to turn off the rest of the work. And there is the Concerto for Violin and with its ghostly romantic opening, the Shostakovichian Cello Concerto (particularly that feisty Vivace), and the unorthodox Concerto for Harp and Orchestra. How can you go wrong?

James Leonard, September 2009

This four-disc Ondine set collects the complete concertos of Einojuhani Rautavaara…these 12 works…certainly make the best argument for his status as an amazingly effective, astoundingly diverse, and wonderfully individualistic composer. The works themselves are all from Rautavaara’s wide-ranging maturity. There are three piano concertos, one concerto each for violin, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, organ, and harp, as well as a Ballad for harp and orchestra, plus the sui generic “Cantus Arcticus” for taped Artic bird songs and orchestra. Though the majority of the works are in three movements, each is unlike any other in conception and execution. From the megalomaniacal Piano Concerto No. 1 through the atmospheric Flute Concerto “Dances of the Winds” to the luminous Bass Concerto “Angel of Dusk,” Rautavaara never repeats himself. Each work is superbly composed for its chosen soloist; the nearly Romantic Piano Concerto No. 3, “Gift of Dreams,” written for Vladimir Ashkenazy, is a prime example. The soloists are always technically impressive, particularly Patrick Gallois’ virtuosity on four separate flutes. They are also often emotionally compelling, especially Elmar Oliveira’s seamless legato in the Tranquillo that opens the Violin Concerto. Recorded in cool, clear, deep, and very vivid digital sound, this set deserves to be heard by fans of the best of post-modernism.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group