Sibelius’s Echo

Written by: Colin Anderson

An interview with Jukka-Pekka Saraste on Kaiku: A celebration of Finnish music and film – 11-13 June, Barbican Hall and Cinemas, St Giles, and LSO St Luke’s.

This weekend brings a welcome opportunity to sample Finnish music beyond Sibelius – Kaiku: A Celebration of Finnish music and film. The film ranges from comedy to love-story. Kaiku is the Finnish for echo. “The idea is to show what happened after Sibelius’s time. Some composers have worked really hard to make a career after him. I don’t want to question at all Sibelius’s importance or genius, though it’s strange that a young culture could produce such a giant at the beginning.”

Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in two of six concerts he’s masterminded. Finnish music: melancholic, objective and internal? “It’s been influenced by many directions including Eastern, although Finnish composers wanted to look more to central Europe. Finnish culture is on the dividing line between East and West. That conflict creates a lot of inspiration and has produced cultural independence.” And alliance to nature? “Certainly Finnish music doesn’t have the hectic pulse of urban life. The stress element is not as in older cultures.”

Six concerts in two days (not forgetting films and talks, and more films on Sunday) represent Saraste’s “subjective choice to widen the understanding of Finnish music. I’ve put many influential things in Finnish music together, to make aware the music’s variety and what is now happening. There are pieces from the twenties and thirties probably never heard in the UK.” Among these is Väinö Raitio’s Fantasia poetica, an example of Finnish impressionism. Like Ravel and Debussy? “And you have to mention Scriabin; we feel the East and West directions again.”

Kimmo Hakola’s large-scale Piano Concerto features Nicolas Hodges. “It’s a big thing to do it in London. After the first performance in 1996 I don’t think it’s been heard again. I remember the surprise of the premiere; it’s a totally independent work that has opened the way to future composition in Finland. It’s completely mesmerising.”

One of Finland’s foremost chamber groups, Avanti!, includes music by the progressive Aarre Merikanto who died in 1958. “He admired the structural German way of composing. His greatest work is the opera Juha.” His ‘Schott’ Concerto will be heard, which won that publisher’s prize. “That was a big thing for him; proof that a musical talent of great calibre was living in Finland. But it was too late, he’d lost his faith and he had alcohol and drug problems.”

Kaiku’s music-side concludes with Sibelius’s great Symphony No.7. Does its placing here point back? “The other way round. What he left in the Seventh Symphony opened up the future of Finnish music, inspiring rather than restricting. There’s a source of possibility in it that many composers come back to.” There’s also the UK premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Oltra Mar, which is “extremely powerful, the deep, dark orchestra and choral sounds are very effective.”

The weekend begins on Friday with a 4.30 talk. Then, at St Giles Cripplegate (string quartets there Saturday morning), Tuija Hakkila’s piano recital includes Erik Bergman, now 92. “He’s the grand old man of Finnish modernism; everybody goes back to Bergman to widen their range.” And Friday late is Finnish tango! “It’s a mirror to the Finnish soul. The sad words related to tangos truly describe Finnish melancholy; together with the exciting tango pulse it’s a truly fascinating thing, a very strange phenomenon.” Saraste laughs. “I’m getting really excited about it!”

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