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Poema
Erkki SALMENHAARA (1941-2002)
Poema (1975) [6:49]
Pehr Henrik NORDGREN (1944-2008)
HATE-LOVE Op.71 (1987) [15:49]
Juho KANGAS (b. 1976)
Concerto for Cello and Strings (2010) [21:37]
Aulis SALLINEN (b. 1935)
Chamber Music VIII Op. 94 (2008-2009) [20:00]
Marko Ylönen (cello)
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas
rec. 21-24 May 2013, Snellman Hall, Kokkola, Finland.
ALBA ABCD372 SACD [65:09]

This is a very nicely performed and recorded programme of more or less recent work from Finland for cello and string orchestra. Starting with Erkki Salmenhaara’s funereal Poema is a bit of a gamble, since if it is to set the mood of the rest of the disc then we’re not in for a cheery experience. This is an attractively tonal work but very much in a dour E-flat minor, at one point quoting and in many ways growing from the famous funeral-march slow movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B-flat minor.

Also dark but more dramatic is Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s HATE-LOVE, which is a fantasia quasi-concerto with a strong solo part and an equal partnership with some fascinating sonorities from the other strings. There are plenty of emphatic stresses which might be the sharp edge of hate or the intense angst of love, but as the booklet points out, in the end these are “like two sides of the same coin”. The title is both a key and an enigma, but the piece itself is a striking masterpiece and representative of the composer’s long association with the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and string music in general. This is the only work on the album which is not a world première recording.

Juho Kangas, son of the conductor Juha Kangas, is given a big bite of this cherry with his Concerto for Cello and Strings, a virtuoso tour de force for soloist Marko Ylönen. This is mostly angular, tensely wrought music which takes its strength from ‘moments’, sequences of material which move or dissolve from one to the next with tricky to define relationships. In many ways this work fits the ‘poema’ title of this CD more than the eponymous opening work, in music which has the narrative qualities of brief poetic texts. The frustration here is that, while each text is strong enough to make you pay attention, the next has come along before you’ve had a chance to absorb and appreciate the last. This is a work with some sublime sounds and many other powerful qualities, but doesn’t haunt the memory as it might have done.

The final piece is by the best known of these composers, Aulis Sallinen, whose Chamber Music VIII is subtitled “Paavo Haavikko in memoriam”, a respectful marker for a writer who collaborated with Sallinen on two of his operas. The solo cello has indeed what to my ears often sounds like a vocal part, sometimes in complex recitative, elsewhere in rhapsodic solo rumination or effusive aria. This is another work which moves through moods, atmospheres and ‘moments’, but these are prepared and developed differently to those in Juho Kangas’s Concerto. Sallinen’s feel for operatic sequence makes the musical narrative something which the mind can trace and follow as if reading one epic poem with many chambers, rather than numerous small poems each with a different number or title. There is the immediacy of straightforward, at times almost Sibelian harmonic progressions leaping out from more rarefied material. The sense of the unexpected and the demand for focus and concentration from the listener is equally rewarded with corners of passion and various forms of emotional connection.

As was suspected from the outset, this isn’t the recording to cheer you up on a gloomy winter afternoon, but it is an unusual programme of which string orchestra and cello aficionados should be aware. The recording is excellent in stereo or 5.1 Super Audio. The very informative booklet notes are in English and Finnish.

Dominy Clements