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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2011

Classical Lost and Found Best Find for 2011

On the heels of their highly acclaimed release of orchestral music by Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu…Ondine now gives us one with some by his fellow countryman Uljas Pulkkis (b. 1975). And once again all selections are world premiere recordings that will stretch the appreciation envelope of late romanticists, delight modernists, and wow audiophiles!

Pulkkis, like Tiensuu and their compatriot Esa-Pekka Salonen…is a magnificent colorist who writes music brimming over with kinetic energy. And a good example of that is his eighteen-minute, orchestrally opulent tone poem On the Crest of Waves (2003). Highly programmatic, it’s about the sea and takes its cue from earlier romantic and impressionistic composers.

It’s made up of seven seamlessly connected “fantasias,” as the composer calls them, each having a descriptive title. In the introductory one [track-1], glistening strings suggest a calm glassy sea, and introduce an angular sighing riff (AS) [track-1, beginning at 00:07] that will act as a unifying motif throughout the piece.

Woodwinds, brass and harp join in the following fantasia entitled “On the Shore” [track-2], which the composer says was inspired by his seeing waves striking the coast of Iceland. There’s something of Debussy’s (1862–1918) La Mer…Sibelius’ (1865–1957) fifth symphony (1915, revised 1919), and Ravel’s (1875–1937) Daphnis and Chloé (1912) in this mesmerizing section.

However, it’s the calm before the storm, which Pulkkis conjures up in the next three fantasias named “The Wind,” “Rough Sea” and “Approaching Storm” [tracks-3, 4 and 5]. Stabbing allusions to AS and heavy duty percussion make this the most exciting part of the poem with passages calling to mind Richard Strauss’ (1864–1949) Ein Heldenleben (1897–98).

After an arresting thunder and lightning-streaked passage, [track-5, beginning at 03:19] Neptune’s wrath…abates in “The Clam” [tracks-6], which gives way to the concluding fantasia, “On the Waves.” It ends this extraordinary seascape in a benign state with a sinusoidal contemplation of ocean motion.

As we’ve noted before the Finns seem to have a real knack for turning out superb contemporary clarinet concertos. To wit, Magnus Lindberg’s (b. 1958) highly acclaimed one of 2002, and Jukka Tiensuu’s from 2007…

Well, here’s a third which Pulkkis calls Tales of Joy, Passion, and Love. It’s in three adjoining movements corresponding sequentially to each of the sentiments in the title. The last one was composed first in 2005, with the other two following in 2010.

Inspired by the composer’s love for opera, he likens the clarinet’s role to that of a leading tenor. Carrying this a couple of steps further, there are stage directions for several members of the orchestra (see the album notes for details), and the clarinet is joined in the last movement by a male soloist singing a love song.

The first movement, “Tales of Joy,” begins with a chortling ursine melody on the bassoon that could be a deformed variant of that skittish theme in Mozart’s (1756–1791) overture to The Magic Flute… It’s soon taken up by the clarinet, and the music gains momentum as a brief minimalistic, rhythmic riff bubbles periodically to the surface [track-8, beginning at 01:30].

All the while the soloist swoops virtuosically over brilliantly colored tutti passages, eventually hitting a sustained high note [track-8, beginning at 05:40]. This marks a turning point after which a more subdued section follows.

But the music builds again, becoming even more frenetic. Passages reminiscent of Mahler’s (1860–1911) fatalistic symphonic moments appear, only to die away and eventually transition into the next movement, “Tales of Passion.”

This begins introspectively with amorous bravura utterances played by the soloist along with the orchestra’s two clarinets. The music becomes more florid, and they’re joined by a quartet drawn from the string sections [track-9, beginning at 06:12]. This gives us a concerto grosso of sorts with a septet of soloists.

The pace then gradually slows, and the movement fades into the final “Tales of Love” announced by strings and tubular chimes. This is the most reflective as well as unconventional part of the concerto. It includes a strange hybrid aria in which the soloist is the clarinet together with a baritone singing Thomas Moore’s (1779–1852) poem “She Sung of Love” (see the album notes for the text) from his Irish Melodies (1808–34, volume 9). Reputedly the intention of all this is to have the vocalist verbalizing what the clarinet’s expressing—its effectiveness is left up to you!

The last selection is the nine-minute tone poem Vernal Bloom from 2008, which has no underlying program other than invoking feelings associated with spring. Written for a Finnish youth orchestra, it’s appropriately straightforward as well as energetic. And in an effort to give every youngster their day in court, it takes on the aspect of a brilliantly scored mini-concerto for orchestra with solo passages popping up like spring flowers.

The opening is high-strung with fragmented motifs and frequent brass flourishes that may bring Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844–1908) Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel, 1907) to mind. The composer constructs a colorful harmonic house of cards from these with arresting horn glissandi. And then the piece suddenly ends in medias res, leaving one wondering whether all the music was passed out to the players.

Conductor Hannu Lintu and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra give us thrilling performances of these Technicolor scores, and the same can be said of clarinetist Kari Kriikku in the Tales… concerto. He lives up in every respect to his previous recordings of those by Lindberg and Tiensuu (see above). A big round of applause also goes to “the voice of the clarinet,” baritone Gabriel Suovanen, for his sensitive delivery of Moore’s poem.

The Ondine engineers turn out some of today’s best sounding conventional CDs, and this one’s no exception! Done on separate occasions in Tampere Hall, Finland, the recordings are consistently outstanding. They project an expansive, but well focused soundstage in one of those venues where you could hear a pin drop. Clarity is paramount with the clarinet and other soloists, including the baritone, perfectly placed and balanced.

Pulkkis’ elaborate scoring covers a wide frequency spectrum and generates a considerable dynamic range, both of which will test the limits of any sound system. The instrumental timbre is musical with bright silvery highs, and gut-felt lows whenever the guy in the “kitchen department” whacks that bass drum. This is definitely a “sheep-and-goats” disc when it comes to judging new audio equipment!

Hubert Culot
MusicWeb International, August 2011

Although still under forty Uljas Pulkkis already has a substantial and varied output to his credit and has been awarded a number of prizes. He received the First Prize of the 1999 Queen Elisabeth Composition Competition for his work for piano and orchestra The Tears of Ludovico and this brought him some international recognition. His concerto Enchanted Garden (2000) was awarded the first prize at the 2001 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers.

Now here is another disc devoted to some of his most recent works of which On the Crest of Waves composed in 2003 is the earliest. Although subtitled “Seven fantasies for symphony orchestra”, the piece is really one large-scale tone poem. It depicts the sea’s various moods in much the same way as some celebrated models such as Debussy’s La Mer or Bridge’s The Sea. Its seven linked movements draw a beautiful, colourful seascape in which Pulkkis’s orchestral flair is much to the fore.

His clarinet concerto Tales of Joy, Passion and Love was written for and dedicated to Kari Kriikku. The title of each of the three movements speaks for itself and so does the music. The first two movements share some thematic material. The first movement, Tales of Joy is mostly lively and rhythmically alert. The music may at times bring John Adams to mind without ever mimicking it. The movement ends unresolved and quietly bridges into the second movement Tales of Passion in which the soloist is joined first by the orchestral clarinets and later by a string quartet. The music here is mostly meditative although it has its more impassioned episodes—appropriately so, I would say. The third movement Tales of Love is somewhat unusual and seems to have been composed some time earlier than the first two movements of the concerto. It is a setting for baritone and clarinet of a text by Thomas Moore (1779–1852). “I had to have a singer. This movement is an aria, and it’s better understood as such if there is a singer actually there.”

Vernal Bloom was written to a commission from the Young Euro Classics Festival for a Finnish youth orchestra Vivo to which it is dedicated. Unlike the other works this one has no particular programme attached to the music. “It simply refers to the fact that it was spring and our first child had just been born.” This is thus a short, extrovert, unproblematic and quite attractive work that—rather inexplicably—ends unresolved; clearly a miscalculation on the composer’s part.

Pulkkis’s music is superbly crafted and marvellously scored. Here is a composer who really loves writing for large orchestral forces. The music often brings older composers to mind such as Debussy, Ravel and even Respighi. These performances and recordings do full justice to such lushly scored works. …I found the music really well made and attractive. This is a fine release that should appeal to all with a liking for Debussy and Ravel.

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