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Leevi MADETOJA (1887-1947)
Kullervo - Symphonic Poem (1913) [14.13]
Symphony No. 2 (1918) [41.33]
Elegy for strings, Op. 4/1 (1909) [5:53]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. 29-30 May 2012, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
ONDINE ODE 1212-2 [62:04]
 
The cause of Leevi Madetoja is being well served by the Finnish independent label Ondine. By my reckoning this is their eighth Madetoja release.
 
Born in 1887 at the coastal city of Oulu in Northern Finland, Madetoja is a younger contemporary and fellow countryman of Jean Sibelius. Clearly Sibelius’s music totally overshadows that of Madetoja who at one time studied with the older composer even expressing interest in writing his biography. Given this association it is no surprise that Madetoja’s music is sometimes said to inhabit a similar sound-world to that of Sibelius. In truth I don’t find their likeness too pronounced as Madetoja went on to developed his own distinctive personal language.
 
The earliest work on the disc is the Elegy for strings, Op. 4/1. Madetoja was still a student at the Helsinki Music Institute when the score was introduced by conductor Robert Kajanus in 1910 to considerable acclaim. It wasn’t long before the composer integrated the Elegy for strings into his Symphonic Suite, Op. 4. This highly attractive work, although heartbreakingly tender, doesn’t have the solemn tread of a funeral dirge. In this highly charged performance Storgårds directs with a sure pulse that provides significant forward momentum.
 
Madetoja, like his mentor Sibelius, couldn’t resist the lure of the epic Finnish poetry of the Kalevala. His response was the symphonic poem Kullervo from 1913, a musical portrait of the ill-fated son of Kalervo. Fertile ideas certainly flood from Madetoja’s pen often using short contrasting blocks of music. Sibelius’s long and flowing lines are not employed and the music remain rather unmemorable. Conducting with assurance Storgårds is unfazed by the demands of Madetoja’s challenging score. He clearly understands the rhythm and thrust of the music.
 
Madetoja’s brother was killed in the Finnish Civil War. His friend was killed shortly after. It is not surprising then that Symphony No. 2 reflects the resulting emotional scars. Cast in four movements this symphony is imposing and contains some impressively dramatic writing. Opening with a boldly melodic Allegro moderato the music is only moderately emotional. The summery Andante commencing with a bucolic oboe solo failed to make much of an impression and rather outstayed its welcome. More to my taste was the Allegro non troppo with its squally and strangely disconcerting sound-world. Although the writing racks up real tension and a palpable sense of anger the movement ends on a calm note. The final Andantino lasts just under five minutes here. I was struck how by assuredly Storgårds conveys a sense of peace and resignation from this gently flowing writing.
 
Having heard John Storgårds conduct Sibelius on three occasions in Manchester in his capacity as principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic he certainly demonstrates a special affinity for Finnish music. These Madetoja scores are conducted with sharp insight and unfaltering authority. Under Storgårds’ baton the impeccably prepared Helsinki Philharmonic exhibit their commitment to the music. The playing glows with expressive force and a palpable sense of concentration.
 
The sound engineers have done a splendid job for Ondine reproducing clear and well balanced sonics. This is a well presented release and I loved the artwork Auringonlasku (Sunset, 1930) by Finnish painter Vilho Lampi on the booklet cover.
 
Michael Cookson