Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Finlandia Op.26; Valse Triste Op 44/1
Leevi MADETOJA (1887-1947) Elegy for Strings
Oskar MERIKANTO (1868-1924) Romance; Valse Lente
Heikki AALTOILA (1905-1992) Wedding Waltz of Akseli & Elina
Heino KASKI (1885-1957) Prelude in Gb major, Op. 7
Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928-) Fiddlers Op. 1
Toivo KUULA (1883-1918) Wedding March Op.3 No.2
Erkki MELARTIN (1875-1937) Festive March
Aulis SALLINEN (1935-) Sunrise Serenade Op. 63
Armas JÄRNEFELT (1869-1958) Prelude for Orchestra; Berceuse
Uuno KLAMI (1900-1961) Nocturne-Song of the Watch (from Sea Pictures)
Taneli KUUSISTO (1905-1988) Finnish Prayer
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Jorma Panula
Finnish Chamber Orchestra/Okko Kamu (Sallinen)
Maarit Kirvessalo, violin (Järnefelt, Berceuse)
Reino Kotaviita, trumpet (Kuusisto)
Rec. 6th-8th September 1995 Turku Concert Hall & Klami 28th November- 4th December
Sallinen 19th -22nd December 1995 Tapiola Hall, Espoo;
NAXOS 8.555773 [67.00]
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Finnish music played by a Finnish orchestra and conducted by a Finn; a sure-fire recipe for an excellent programme! With the notable exception of Sibelius the music of this small but great northern country is little known in the United Kingdom. Of course, specialists and enthusiasts will know of most or all the composers represented on this CD. However, for the average 'music lover' the names on this recording will be very much a closed book. It is good that we should explore the works of some of the finest composers not only from this 'North-land' but also of the whole European tradition. For a small republic, Finland has produced more than its fair share of masters.

My first recommendation however is prescriptive. Please do not listen to this CD at one sitting. There are some fifteen works here by a dozen composers. The quality of the music presented is never in doubt - either from the players or from the composers' pens. However the content is quite uneven. By that I mean that most of the pieces would be classified as 'light' music and are therefore easy to come to terms with. However, one or two of the works require a little more concentration. The structure of the programme is delightfully uneven. So choose a work, listen, have a cup of tea, play it over again and then go for the next one.

The senior composer on this CD is Sibelius who is represented by two of his 'pot-boilers' -Finlandia and the Valse Triste. The youngest is Aulis Sallinen with his somewhat unusual 'Sunrise Serenade'. Only Sallinen and Einojuhani Rautavaara are still alive.

The CD opens with a good rendition of 'Finlandia'. This piece is so well known that little needs to be said - except that this is quite a restrained performance. But this is pleasant. Too often this work is an excuse for going over the top. The brass is well in tune and the slow 'hymn' melody is pleasing. However, I wonder if Naxos could have given us something a bit more unusual from the Sibelius catalogue? Surely most folk who buy this CD will already have his 'Top Ten' at the very least; it is not the sort of thing one does - buying a CD of Finnish Orchestral Favourites on the off chance that it might be good!

Leevi Madetoja is, I believe, largely unknown in this country. That is unfortunate. He is well worth getting to know; especially his 2nd Symphony which is truly a masterpiece. He is highly regarded in Finland for his opera The Ostrobothnians. This was effectively the first major Finnish 'Grand Opera'. Madetoja was a pupil of Sibelius; he studied with Vincent d'Indy. His style, although owing much to Sibelius, is influenced by French classicism.

The Elegy given here is a part of his Symphonic Suite of 1910; it should be much better known. It is a beautifully restrained and well thought out piece. A definite candidate for Classic FM.

Oskar Merikanto's 'Romance' and 'Valse Lente' are a slightly different matter. This composer was a pianist and teacher. He composed much for the piano and was very popular in the 'drawing room'. There is, of course, nothing to criticise in that. But my concern is that Naxos have recorded an orchestration (albeit a good one) of these two piano originals. I often wonder what is the value of orchestrating pieces originally written for another medium? Surely there is a wide corpus of orchestral music to choose from? I would have had no problems if this CD had both orchestral and piano works on it - Finnish Favourites!

Both of these works are 'light' in the sense that they are easily accessible. Of course that does not mean they are not well written and in this case neatly scored. They are.

The Valse Lente has long been a favourite of mine -at least in the piano version. And I must confess to quite enjoying this orchestration - despite my comments above!

Curiously nothing is given on this CD by Aare Merikanto - Oscar's son. Perhaps his music was deemed to be too 'modern' or perhaps the myth that he is an 'outsider' to mainstream Finnish music has been perpetuated?

Back to Sibelius and his Valse Triste. Originally written as 'incidental music'. Whatever the play was has probably been long forgotten, but this number has had a lasting popularity. It has been arranged for everything from guitar to brass band!

It is always an attractive piece - and here it is convincingly played. But Naxos, please, when there are so many other 'lighter' pieces by Sibelius do we need Valse Triste again?

Heikki Aaltoila was renowned in his day for film and stage music. The piece presented here is the Wedding Waltz of Akseli and Elina. It was extracted from the film 'Here beneath the North Star.' This is certainly an attractive piece in the mould of Eric Coates. The brass writing is typically very good, as is the rest of the orchestration. On the basis of this slight piece Aaltoila should be better known in the 'light' and 'film' music circles.

Heino Kaski wrote much for the pianoforte. This present Prelude in G flat major being a case in point. However, the composer himself chose to orchestrate this piece so I have fewer concerns than with the case of Oskar Merikanto. The piece is good if not great; it is somewhat four-square in places, but this is mitigated by a lush second theme.

Tunes are a big feature of this CD - good ones, great ones and 'okay' ones. But that is what light music is all about. Good tunes, good harmonies and effective orchestration.

The Fiddlers Opus 1 by Einojuhani Rautavaara is possibly the most accomplished piece on this recording. It has everything that makes this a fine example of modern light music; not too sentimental and not too 'modernistic'; a perfect balance between old and new. There is a fine 'out of tune' opening section that soon leads into more obviously folksy material. The scoring is especially attractive, with some lovely tunes or snatches of tunes.

Einojuhani Rautavaara studied with a whole raft of composers - including Merikanto, Vincent Persichetti and Aaron Copland. This eclecticism shows even in this slight piece.

He has a large repertoire to his name including a number of symphonies and large-scale choral works.

It is nice to have the composer's first 'recognised' work as a part of the selection. I am not sufficiently clued up on this composer to know if this is really a first work or the last of a series of 'apprenticeship works.' There is always something new to learn. There are some very interesting sounds in this work, which, believe it or not, remind me of his later compositions. There is comparatively little written about the composer and this piece in the programme notes. More information on the background would have been welcomed. For example who were 'Mr Jonas Kopsi' and 'Bell Ringer Samuel Dikstrom'?

Although I love the more romantic and more obviously lightweight pieces on this CD dearly, I feel that Rautavaara's work is the most technically competent. It makes a fine introduction to one of Finland's greatest living composers.

Toivo Kuula died after the Finnish Civil War. His potential was never to be realised. The present Wedding March is a good piece - well written with just the right amount of sentimentality. The composer's understanding of orchestration was obviously profound. It is a pity we have little more to judge him on.

This Wedding March is quite bitter sweet. This is not a riotous wedding - there are thoughts here on the deeper meaning of marriage.

Erkki Melartin produced what the programme notes claim to be a wedding march popular in Finland. The work is derived from the composer's incidental music to the play 'Sleeping Beauty.' I do not warm to this 'Festive March' - I am not sure I would have liked it played at my wedding. Do they process in or out to it?

Melartin has some seven symphonies to his credit. He wrote music in many styles and for a variety of combinations - much of it in the post-nationalist style. It is a pity that he is represented by something that maybe does not show him in the best of lights.

The most 'modernistic' piece on this CD is written by the youngest composer represented - Aulis Sallinen. He was born in 1935 and has much music to his credit. He has composed six symphonies and has made considerable inroads to the revival of opera in Helsinki. The Sunrise Serenade is a somewhat unusual work that does not make for easy listening. It is scored for strings, two trumpets and piano. It seems to be quite an eclectic piece encompassing a variety of styles. This is certainly my least favourite piece on the disc. To me it does not fulfil the programme notes' promise that the work depicts a transition from darkness to light, a message of hope and optimism. That being said, there are times when I find the trumpet solo writing quite compelling. Yet somehow the piece does not seem to hang together. It lacks a sense of unity and underlying structure. I cannot really imagine that this piece is a rip-roaring favourite in the average Helsinki household.

Armas Järnefelt is represented on this recording by two works - his Prelude for Orchestra and his Berceuse. These two works, according to the programme notes are just about the sum total of all that he is remembered for. Of course, I am sure that there will be a scholar or an enthusiast who will refute this opinion. And that may be a good thing. A Järnefelt revival, indeed! In spite of the fact that he was brother-in-law to Sibelius there is really nothing in these two pieces to get excited about. Pleasant listening, though!

Uuno Klami is a composer to be reckoned with. Yet he remains stubbornly unknown in this country, in spite of the fact that there is quite a selection of his major works available on CD. There are symphonies, concerti and tone poems to explore. Klami does not really belong to the Nationalist school of Finnish composition. He is not in the camp of Sibelius. Much of Klami's influence has been from a Parisian sojourn during 1924/25 where he fell under the spell of Maurice Ravel. Like many composers Klami was somewhat eclectic; he was influenced by Prokofiev, Honegger, Stravinsky and Madetoja. Jazz elements find their way into his music at a time when jazz was an unknown quantity in Finland.

Klami wrote his 'Sea Pictures' in the 1930s; they reflect both his love of the sea and the abiding influence of Ravel. 'The Song of the Watch' is beautifully simple - yet highly effective. Nothing difficult here, yet completely capable of showing the composer's technical skill. This piece must hopefully make listeners want to hear more of this excellent music.

The last piece, the Finnish Prayer is, to my way of thinking, a bit too sentimental. It is a setting by Taneli Kuusisto of a song by Unno Kailer. The piece has been orchestrated by Jorma Panula. According to the programme notes it is an 'evergreen' in Finland. The trumpet melody in the second half of the work would bring a tear to a 'glass eye'. It would certainly make a lovely arrangement for brass band. I would hazard a guess that that has already been done.

The programme notes are too short; much more information about these relatively unknown composers would be helpful. Perhaps the works given here are not always the best introduction to the respective composer's oeuvre? Perhaps we are liable to misjudge some of them on the strength of these pieces?

That being said, this CD ought to serve as an excellent introduction to Finnish music. Most listeners will be well aware of the music of Sibelius. Rautavaara and Sallinen are probably quite well known to most contemporary music enthusiasts and Madetoja to those who enjoy 'plunging romanticism'. However most of the composers on this CD will be virtually unknown to most listeners. Of course, there are a number of omissions from this CD; where is a piece or movement by Einar Englund, Selim Palmgren or Ernst Pingoud, for example. Perhaps there is scope for a 'Volume Two' as has happened with the excellent two CDs of Swedish Favourites issued by Naxos.

The pieces are consistently well played. However, I found the balance a bit awry. I had to keep turning the volume control up and down between pieces.

I emphasise my suggestion that one does not listen to this CD at one sitting. Pick bits out, play again, and get to know; enjoy!

If I had to give my top three from this disc they would be: -

  1. Rautavaara's 'Fiddlers' Op. 1

  2. Klami's Nocturne from Sea Pictures

  3. Madetoja's Elegy.

The Sibelius is of course excellent. However these works are so widely available and so well known that they need little encouragement from my pen.

John France

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