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Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928-2016)
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 (1972-3/2001) [17:55]
Two Preludes and Fugues (1955) [9:36]
Sonata for Cello Solo (1969) [14:24]
Song of my Heart (1996/2000) [3:20]
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 (1991) [18:05]
Polska (1977) [4:37]
Tanja Tetzlaff (cello)
Gunilla Süssmann (piano)
rec. 2017, Sendesaal Bremen, Germany
ONDINE ODE1310-2 [67:57]

Einojuhani Rautavaara is one of the finest of the many good composers which the tiny country of Finland has produced since Sibelius. He has been well served by the record company Ondine, which has issued all his symphonies and concertos, a good deal of choral music and several operas. They have now reached the mopping up stage, and this disc of music for solo cello and for cello and piano is part of this. It is a very worthwhile task.

In the course of his career Rautavaara adopted several different styles, as did Stravinsky. He started as something of a neo-classicist, then went through a period of using serial techniques before reaching a neo-Romantic idiom which was all his own. However, as with Stravinsky, at all periods he sounds like himself and the divisions between them are not sharp. He can write splendidly lyrical melodies, incisive rhythms, harmonies ranging from the meltingly Wagnerian to the most acerbically Schoenbergian and his music is always good to hear, leading you on so that you want to hear what happens next.

The works on this disc represent all his periods. They are not presented in chronological order, but I shall discuss them in that way as that is how I listened to them. We begin with two very early, in fact student, works. These are the Two Preludes and Fugues. Each of the Preludes is for solo cello with the piano joining in only for the Fugue. Not surprisingly, you can hear the influence of Bach. The first Prelude begins in a declamatory manner before settling down to something more flowing; the fugue has a lilting subject and something of the quality of Hindemith, though more romantic than Hindemith usually allowed himself to be. The second Prelude is more ambitious, with an anguished opening and writing covering the whole range of the instrument, including the glissandi harmonics Stravinsky invented for The Firebird. The Fugue is strange and atmospheric, mysterious and haunting.

The Sonata for Cello Solo is in four movements. The first is the longest, using double stops, initially exploratory and meditative before becoming more regular in its movement. The brief second movement is playful and dance-like. The slow movement features a sad rocking theme punctuated by pizzicati on the lower strings, while the finale is a vigorous but melancholy dance. This is a successful work in a very difficult form.

The first of the two Sonatas for Cello and Piano is in one movement in the neo-Romantic idiom. The piano opens with rich chords before the cello comes in with a sombre melody. The piano has very varied writing, sometimes with angry passages at the top of the instrument. The cello, on the other hand, is always lyrical. There are several changes of mood and pace and some wonderful writing, sometimes mysterious and crystalline, sometimes rich and evocative. I found this a fascinating work, albeit not completely integrated.

The second Sonata for Cello and Piano has a strange history. The first of the three movements is reworked from an earlier composition which had been written for a competition. The other two movements use material from Rautavaara’s opera The House of the Sun. This is a more modernistic work than the first sonata. The opening movement is a dialogue which at times uses aleatoric techniques, in which the two instruments are not precisely synchronized. There is then a scurrying scherzo with a central, more plaintive section. The finale is the longest movement, closely argued and with imperious writing for the cello with a triumphant close. Despite the heterogeneous origins of the material, this is a masterful work.

Two short items complete the disc. Song of my heart is based on the conclusion to the opera of the same name, arranged for cello and piano in memory of the (very worthwhile) Estonian composer Lepo Sumera. It is elegiac and beautiful. Polska, for two cellos and piano, is a set of sometimes wild variations on a folk tune. In this, Tanja Tetzlaff plays both cello parts, presumably using double tracking. I happen to dislike this technique: it substitutes a narcissistic self-regard for the interplay of two musicians which the composer intended. But it is a short piece and a small point.

Tanja Tetzlaff is an accomplished player, who has made a regular duo with Gunilla Süssmann for many years. They were invited by Ondine to record this repertoire and have thrown themselves into the task with enthusiasm. Sadly, shortly after completing it, Gunilla Süssmann was diagnosed with focal dystonia in her right hand, and it doubtful whether she will be able to play again. The recording is up to Ondine’s usual high standards and the sleevenotes are helpful. Rautavaara’s resourceful and imaginative writing for the cello, whether with or without a piano, make this a rewarding disc.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe



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