Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: February 2002
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL SK 89810
Duration: 80 minutes
Sony Classical is currently providing an indispensable service on behalf of contemporary Finnish music. Following hard on the heels of outstanding discs devoted to orchestral works of Saariaho and Salonen, this new release with its ultra-generous playing time gathers together Lindberg’s four most recent orchestral scores.
And what an exhilarating 80 minutes of listening is to be had here. I would defy anyone to respond impassively to Lindberg’s music. Even in his early modernist works of the 1980s, culminating in the explosive Kraft, Lindberg was a master of the dramatic gesture. His music of the last ten years has sought to develop a more sustained and fluid style but the boldness of gesture remain to the fore, coupled with an exultant and virtuoso use of the orchestra, almost Straussian in its abandon. At the same time, repeated hearings reveal the taut structural control, built out of long-term harmonic goals, which binds together the bewildering amount of surface activity.
The clearest illustration of these concerns here is Cantigas (1998/99). Written for the Cleveland Orchestra and Dohnanyi, the work is a virtuoso concerto for orchestra. The kaleidoscopic nature of the writing derives from the interplay of separate blocks of material, each with its own defining tempo, interval and mode of articulation. It’s a technique familiar from Elliott Carter, in which the juxtaposition of the different strata and the underlying harmonic flow generate the work’s form. There is a near-constant presence of rapid figuration flashing over slower-moving harmonies, like flurries of snow blowing over the surface of a mountain range. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the music is of multiple lines twisting and turning suddenly into a massive newly discovered chord spaced-out across the pitch-range of the orchestra, with apocalyptic drum thwacks for added emphasis.
One could point to the influence of Berio and Lutoslawski, as well as Carter, but there is a joyous exuberance about the music which is pure Lindberg and highly communicative. There is a textural thinning-out about the two-thirds point, which provides relief, but this proves to be a ’reculer pour mieux sauter’ strategy as the satiated material returns. The climax is quite overwhelming, a sudden opening-out into luminous harmonic territory, likened by the composer to the same effect at the end of Ravel’s Bolero, although everything else about Cantigas is the polar opposite of Bolero.
The earliest work on the disc, Fresco of 1997, is in some ways the most difficult to grasp, at least as regards form. As with Cantigas, the work’s structure is the sedimented by-product of the harmonic and gestural processes, as opposed to the classical approach of pouring the content into a pre-determined mould. In Fresco this results in the ghost of a four-movement symphonic design, which is neither here nor there because it does not come across as remotely symphonic. (I must disagree with the otherwise typically perceptive notes of Martin Anderson, who allies Lindberg with Robert Simpson in this respect; surely a classic instance of hearing music through the filter of one’s particular enthusiasms. What next, the influence of Havergal Brian on Xenakis?) As a result, it is not always clear where the music is going. Only after the release into a kind of slow chorale, does its shape become retrospectively apparent. Nevertheless, Fresco still grips by dint of its endlessly inventive detail, which registers in its own right without ever being allowed to stand outside the wider picture – everything is folded into the skein-like texture of the whole work.
The sense of a fast music trying, but never succeeding, to break out of an underlying slower music – very much a feature of Fresco – is of the essence in Parada, written for the South Bank’s recent “Related Rocks” Lindberg festival. The composer freely acknowledges that he intended to create an adagio but faster material kept breaking in, locking the two musics into fruitful symbiosis. It’s a striking example of the creative process determining itself over the composer’s pre-compositional stratagem, as though Lindberg’s instinctive tendency toward proliferation defeated his game-plan of producing something more straightforward. Lindberg is not the first composer to point to the first movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony as the precursor of this phenomenon (cf. Peter Maxwell Davies’s First Symphony). Here, however, even the harmony has a Sibelian ring to it, creating a very accessible and attractive piece.
Coming immediately after the almost obscenely gripping drama of Cantigas, the Cello Concerto (1999) initially makes less of an impact in its conversational relationship between soloist and an orchestra confined mainly to the low registers; as the work’s scheme begins to emerge, it proves highly convincing. The cello writing becomes ever more fantastical, culminating at the halfway point with a spectral cadenza. When the orchestra reappears, the tone has shifted in favour of a more subdued manner that eventually coalesces into an almost conventionally elegiac and gently drifting cantilena. It’s an affecting work, perfectly realised here by Anssi Karttunen for whom it was written and who has done so much to extend the cello’s repertoire.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is the driving force behind Sony’s recent commitment to the middle generation of Finnish composers and he marshals the huge orchestral forces effortlessly, majestically sculpting Lindberg’s blocks of sound. The Philharmonia positively revels in its own virtuosity. Lindberg’s mile-high chords register startlingly in a recording of great sonic range and depth; the clean focus ensures that complex textures never seem cluttered. Along with Oliver Knussen’s account of the awesome Aura [DG 463 184-2], this strikes me as the essential Lindberg disc to date. Newcomers to Lindberg should start here. Those already converted – and there is an ever-growing number – will need no recommendation.