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Aulis SALLINEN (b. 1935)
A Solemn Overture (King Lear) Op.75 (1997)
Symphony No.1 Op.24 (1972)
Chorali Op.22 (1970)
Symphony No.7 "The Dreams of Gandalf" Op.71 (1995/6)
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Ari Rasilainen
Recorded: Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, June 2002
CPO 999 918-2 [62:58]


Good news, indeed, for this is the first instalment of CPO’s ambitious programme of recordings of Sallinen’s complete orchestral output. There is plenty of ground to cover and he has already completed his Eighth Symphony Autumnal Fragments commissioned by the Concertgebouw Orchestra. They will premiere it in April 2004.

Although his reputation mainly rests on his successful series of operas, Sallinen has consistently composed for orchestral forces of varying size throughout his composing career. His symphonies are the backbone of his orchestral output, although whether they are real symphonies may still be debated. Ultimately, though, a symphony is what the composer makes of it. Few, if any, of Sallinen’s symphonies fit into the traditional symphonic mould; but all of them may be regarded as his most personal utterances, and – as such – deserve respect and consideration.

The earliest work here, Chorali Op.22, completed in 1970, scored for orchestral winds, celesta and harp, was written at Berglund’s suggestion. The piece appropriately consists of blocks of sound, constantly varied, separated or brought together in a mosaic-like counterpoint. Several later works such as the Fifth String Quartet "Pieces of Mosaic" Op.54 and the Fifth Symphony "Washington Mosaics" Op.57 emphasise this type of musical thinking. However, Chorali Op.22 and the First Symphony (its original title was Sinfonia) share several Sallinen hallmarks, foremost among them, an organic development of small motivic units, somewhat in a similar way as Holmboe’s so-called metamorphosis technique. The First Symphony is thus a compact single movement structure roughly based on variations. At that time, too, Sallinen had already turned his back on serial thinking still evident in some of his early works, although he never strictly adhered to Serialism.

Both the Seventh Symphony "The Dreams of Gandalf" Op.71 and A Solemn Overture (King Lear) Op.75 belong to the other end of Sallinen’s present composing career. Symphony No.7, completed in 1996, largely reworks material gathered for a ballet based on Tolkien’s The Hobbit that never materialised. The subtitle, however, does not imply that this is programmatic music. The composer does not aim at depicting particular episodes from Tolkien’s novel. According to the composer’s words printed in the insert notes, "it is a musical expression of the literary atmosphere and poetry". The music suggests various moods of the book: heroic and legendary, mysterious and meditative. As Martin Anderson rightly remarks in his excellent notes, "the work progresses ... in a patchwork of differing moods and colours". The score proceeds in a series of episodes of hugely contrasted character, by turns dramatic, heroic and meditative. There are, at time, typical touches of Sallinen humour, as in the jolly, archaic-sounding dance (scored for bassoons, tuba and bass drum). The slower sections more than once suggest expansive landscapes of mysterious grandeur. The peaceful ending of the symphony mirrors the mysterious, "in a legendary mood" opening section, so that the music comes full circle. The Seventh Symphony is, no doubt, one of Sallinen’s most engaging, marvellously scored orchestral works.

A Solemn Overture (King Lear) Op.75, commissioned by the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra to mark the 700th anniversary of the Grimaldi family, uses material sketched for the opera on which the composer was working at that time. The work was premiered as Ouverture solennelle; and, for obvious reasons, the subtitle was added later! Though in no way programmatic (in spite of the later addition of the subtitle), the overture – incidentally an independent piece of music otherwise unrelated to the opera – may be experienced as a powerful, at times sombre and menacing, tone poem … not without grandeur either.

The performances, recorded under the composer’s supervision, are highly idiomatic and have an unmistakable ring of authenticity that makes this – and the forthcoming instalments – highly commendable. Rasilainen leads his forces with a sure hand as well as a clear mind, making the best of these superb pieces. I am eagerly waiting for the other discs in this series.

Hubert Culot


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