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CLASSICAL  March 2010

CLASSICAL March 2010

Subject:

Rautavaara the Sort-of Symphonist

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 11 Mar 2010 11:09:26 -0800

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text/plain

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Einojuhani Rautavaara
Symphonies 1-8

National Orchestra of Belgium/Mikko Franck (No. 1)
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Max Pommer
(Nos. 2-6)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam (Nos.  7, 8)
Ondine ODE 1145-2Q  Total time: 239:06 (4 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: If you knew Juhani Rautavaara like I know
Juhani Rautavaara . . . .

I never think of Einojuhani Rautavaara as a "specialist" composer, so I
certainly don't think of him as a symphonist.  Nevertheless, he's written
eight of them -- the first four from the mid-Fifties to early Sixties,
about a twenty-five year break, and then the last four.  To me, Rautavaara
represents an evolving musical point of view, rather than a particular
genre.  It almost doesn't matter if you hear a Rautavaara symphony, a
concerto, opera, cantata, tone poem, or the like.  You listen instead
to a mind usually trying to push past the boundaries of what it knows.
This makes for a very uneven output.  Some pieces by him bore the snot
out of me; others convince me I've just heard the extraordinary.

I think I can claim that I've known his music for a fairly long time --
since the early Seventies, in fact -- of course through recordings, but
only relatively recently have I heard the symphonies.  The unusually
long span from earliest to latest allows you to travel with the composer
to see his point of arrival as well as the stops along the way.

The first four symphonies, although stylistically dissimilar, nevertheless
seem to me classic examples of the young composer trying to find his own
voice.  The rather skimpy liner notes call the First Symphony (1956;
rev.  1988, 2003) "neoclassic," but it doesn't strike me as much of
anything, other than a dutiful exercise, even with the later revisions.
On the other hand, the Symphony No.  2 (1957; rev.  1984) takes from
Stravinsky, but not the neoclassic Stravinsky.  The orchestral sounds
and even some of the phrases come right out of Le Sacre du printemps.
Trust me on this.  I had just finished listening to all my CDs of that
piece (including the piano versions) before I settled into the Rautavaara.

The real breakthrough, it seems to me, comes with the Third of 1961.
Paradoxically, it's the most conservative of the early symphonies.
Rautavaara looks to the German Romantic composer, and without any attempt
to hide anything, that composer is Bruckner.  The themes tend toward the
Bruckner's Ur-Thema.  If Rautavaara doesn't quote exactly, he comes
awfully close.  If you had come upon the symphony in the middle of the
first movement or the last, Bruckner's Fourth would have immediately
sprung to mind.  The liner notes talk about a "dodecaphonic" basis to
the symphony, but I certainly don't hear it.  I don't hear even the
Schoenberg of Verklaerte Nacht.  The music at its most "advanced," hints
at something between Bruckner and Mahler.  Nevertheless, Rautavaara
includes Modernist filigree, like the Venus di Milo wearing a Chanel
scarf.  Furthermore, the slow second movement shows something new, not
Brucknerian -- an individual voice trying to get through.

With the Fourth Symphony "Arabescata" (1963; rev.  1986), we have a true
dodecaphonically serial score.  The liner notes claim that this is the
"only serialist symphony written in Finland." Surely not, although I
can't think of examples right now.  This symphony actually replaces an
earlier fourth symphony (1962), with which the composer, despite a 1968
revision, remained dissatisfied.  In 1986, he withdrew the original
fourth and replaced it with a slight revision of a piece nearly contemporary
with it, Arabescata (1963).  The score is serial, but it doesn't get
stuck in serial cliches or an arrhythmic miasma.  It jumps, it moves.
The slow second movement contains a huge surprise, in a section labeled
"Dedicatio": a reference to the main theme of the Third Symphony.  Clearly,
this composer follows his own train of thought.

The serial influence didn't last long.  It seemed something that Rautavaara
had to try before he moved on.  In the late Sixties, jazz and American
pop found its way into his music, as well as a sprinkling of avant-garde
devices.  In the Seventies, Rautavaara began to discover what became his
characteristic tension and synthesis between Modernism and Contemporary.

The Symphony No. 5 (1986) appeared on the other side of Rautavaara's
Seventies divide.  Among the symphonies, we find it the first that
resembles those Rautavaara scores most of his fans consider in some way
typical.  In one large movement, at roughly a half hour it nevertheless
stands among the composer's longer symphonies.  Indeed, Rautavaara gets
more garrulous as he goes along, and his problem becomes maintaining
listener interest over the long haul.  The Fifth keeps my interest at
any rate, despite the risks the composer runs.  First, it's mostly slow.
Second, the texture from orchestral mass to chamber proportions for
practical purposes don't exist.  The scoring tends to the thick, although
dynamic levels change and he divides work fairly equally among the various
sections of the orchestra.  It pretty plainly lays out the Modern and
Contemporary dialectic in Rautavaara's later work.  It opens with a mass
crescendo on a consonance.  A crashing dissonance mainly from the brass
interrupts the crescendo, and the orchestra then dies down to practically
nothing.  This happens a few times, but you begin to discern a thread
of melody (actually, two threads) beginning to make its way as a duet
in the strings.  Against this, Rautavaara throws aleatoric bursts and
highly chromatic chatter, but the melody persists.  This is what a
listener grabs on to.  Eventually, that thread comes to dominate the
final part of the work, and the symphony ends quietly.

Symphony No. 6 "Vincentiana" (1992) comes from Rautavaara's opera Vincent
(1987), based on the life of the painter van Gogh, always a tricky subject
for any artist to take up.  Even an old hand like Alan Hovhaness ran
into trouble with his orchestral piece, Starry Night, I believe mainly
because his artistic personality excludes the neurotic.  Rautavaara has,
I think, a better chance than most.  His music often seems the aural
equivalent of a painting by either van Gogh or Munch -- neurosis by the
bushelful, then.  I've not heard the opera.

The symphony consists of four movements: "Starry Night," "The Crows,"
"Saint-Remy," "Apotheosis." Again, we see the coexistence of avant-garde
and older Modernist techniques.  A synthesizer adds a panoply of poetic
weirdness to the orchestra, for example.  "Starry Night" begins with in
an aleatoric whirl, representing the eddies of energy swirling through
van Gogh's night sky and about the stars.  It's not a symphonic argument,
but a fascinating, broad swash of color.  However, it settles into a
kind of nocturne for most of the rest of the movement -- not a Romantic
communion, but a chilly, disturbing shiver.  "Crows" opens with another
wash of sound, this time representing the whirring of many wings and the
guttural cackles and caws of crows.  Interesting enough, Rautavaara
resorts to mainly conventional instruments used in imaginative, but not
bizarre ways, the synthesizer adding discreet fillips here and there.
The caws turn into agonizing screams of brass.  Out of this a "death"
chorale emerges, toward the end accompanied by a stripped-down version
of the beginning -- single elements of that texture, rather than the
whole shmier.  The movement concludes with the cackle of a crow.

Saint-Remy was, of course, an asylum to which van Gogh had committed
himself.  Paradoxically, the corresponding movement in the symphony
begins lightly -- one of the few bright spots in the symphony.  A
Ravel-like valse takes over, gorgeous and sensual.  However, it soon
goes awry and falls apart.  Once again, we hear the cry of many birds,
perhaps gulls, until finally we get a grotesque parody of the valse on
the solo synthesizer, sounding as if the notes have melted and twisted.

The final movement, "Apotheosis," raises the question whether van Gogh
could reasonably expect it.  However, when it comes to genius artists,
we're pretty much softies.  It's our Romantic notion that creative genius
(more attuned to the mysteries of the universe than mere civilians) finds
eternal happiness in an eternal quest, just like Faust at the end of
Goethe's poem and Mahler's Eighth.  Rautavaara gives us music that to
me conjures up the south of France, which might be the closest we come
to heaven in this life.  It's beautiful, nostalgic, and slightly
bittersweet.  Toward the end, some dissonance implying metaphysical
Sturmen tries to cover the progress of the main music, but we break
through.  The movement wends its way out with a conversation between the
flute and the synthesizer, with the flute hanging on.  The conversation
ends, but not the music -- an inconclusive chord implying that the soul
goes on and on.

Symphony No. 7 "Angel of Light" (1994) constitutes a genuine
contemporary-music hit, and no wonder.  Again, it continues with the
composer's synthesis of Modern musical narrative with an overlay of
Contemporary devices.  The musical gadgets the composer occasionally
allows in come across as little more than decoration.  Again, the main
thread attaches to matter more traditional.  The symphony runs to four
movements: "Tranquillo," "Molto allegro," "Come un sogno," and "Pesante
-- cantabile." I find the last title most significant.  This is mainly
a cantabile, singing symphony.  Who knew Rautavaara could sing and so
beautifully?  "Tranquillo," after some clashes with bell-like percussion
in a different key, settles into a long, rapturous line of song that
continues for more than ten minutes.  "Molto allegro," a scherzo, for
the most part drives along with the main theme harmonized in seconds, a
la Stravinsky's Petrushka.  If you can handle the Stravinsky, Rautavaara
should pose no problem.  Toward the movement's end, however, the scherzo
collapses and tries unsuccessfully to restart over a bass pedal.  The
pedal continues into the next section, "Come un sogno" (like a dream),
quiet and slow.  It begins less with a melody of notes than with a
"melody" of chords -- beautiful progressions which the composer extends
throughout the movement.  Occasionally, unrelated chains of notes play
against it, mimicking the stagecraft of some of the dreams I've had, at
any rate, as sharp figures appear and vanish against a hazy backdrop.
The finale begins with brass, moves to a chorale, and then takes up the
type of singing we heard in the previous movement.  The cantabile slowly
builds to two large, exultant climaxes -- one toward the middle of the
movement, the other almost at the finish, at which point it sharply
diminuendos to a quiet end.  This symphony risks much -- three very slow
movements in which events take shape over long spans, with only the one
break of the scherzo.  Nevertheless, it succeeds in spades.  It ravishes
a listener.  I much prefer it to the 1976 Gorecki Third, which it
superficially resembles.  Where Gorecki retails well-established
conventions of Trauermusik, Rautavaara invents his own rhetoric.

Written for the centenary of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rautavaara's
latest symphony, No.  8 "The Journey," comes from 1999.  The composer,
born in 1928, may have another one in him and thus join the ranks of the
Number 9 Club, ever since Beethoven, the magic number for symphonists.
Who knows?  I wish I could say I heard more than a thoroughly professional
piece of work, but compared to symphonies 3-7, it doesn't go beyond that.
The layout of movements -- slow, scherzo, slow, grand summing up --
skirts the unusual but on the other hand sticks close enough to the
standard symphonic model that it doesn't really add up to much of a
surprise.  At his best, Rautavaara expands our musical horizons.  This
symphony keeps well within them.  The composer journeys, as it turns
out, to overcrowded hotels.

Leif Segerstam provides the outstanding performance of the set.  His
Angel of Light is both clear and poetic, and it shows great understanding
of Rautavaara's rhetoric in this work.  Max Pommer gives a lovely reading
of the Third, the most traditional of the symphonies, and an insightful
account of the Second, exposing its Stravinskian links.  The rest are
good, if not great performances, mostly as strong as the works themselves.
The sound also depends on the work -- muddy where Rautavaara scores
thickly, decent everywhere else.

Steve Schwartz

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