Kaiku: A Celebration of Finnish Music and Film

11 June

St Giles Cripplegate

Recital by Tuija Hakkila (piano)

Music by Bergman, Lindberg, Meriläinen and Sibelius

Barbican Hall

Gabriel Suovanen (baritone) / Nicolas Hodges (piano) / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Music by Hakola, Raitio and Sibelius

Barbican Hall

Markus Allan (tango singer) / Avanti! / John Storgårds


12 June

St Giles Cripplegate

New Helsinki Quartet [Petri Aarnio & Taija Kilpiö (violins); Ilari Angervo (viola) & Joel Laakso (cello)]

Music by Kaipainen, Kokkonen, Rautavaara and Sallinen

LSO St Luke’s

Anu Komsi (soprano); Veli Kujala (accordion); Avanti! / John Storgårds (violin)

Music by Heininen, Kaipainen, Merikanto, Salonen and Tuomela

Barbican Hall

Kari Kriikku (clarinet) / BBC Symphony Chorus / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Music by Lindberg, Saariaho, Sibelius and Tiensuu


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 June, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, LSO St Luke's, St Giles Cripplegate

Yet more Finnish music? As devised by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Kaiku was not along the lines of recent retrospectives: you have to go back to 1992’s “Tender is the North” for a comparably inclusive survey. Moreover, the music of Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho – the Finnish composers, post-Sibelius, to have built international reputations – was limited to two works by the former and one by the latter.

Lindberg’s Twine (1988) – heard in a sparkling performance by Tuija Hakkila as part of a piano recital which began the weekend – is a tensile study in techniques that were to furnish his idiom over the next decade, while Feria (1997) represents the composer’s orchestral extroversion in full flight. Awash with iridescent textures, coruscating passagework and culminatory chorales, this is music notable less for what it conceals than for what it does not possess – though a more effective concert-opener would be hard to imagine.

One of the New York Philharmonic’s “Messages for the Millennium” commissions, Saariaho’s Oltra mar (1999) – here given its UK premiere – interpolates text-settings with vocalise in a seven-part sequence whose etiolated harmonies and undulating motion anticipates her opera L’amour de loin (previously performed by the BBCSO in 2002): evocative in atmosphere yet insubstantial in content, though the BBC Symphony Chorus appeared to relish its subtleties.

The principal attractions of this weekend thus lay elsewhere. Firstly, in the opportunity to hear music by present-day Finnish composers known primarily through an excellent series of recordings made by Finlandia and latterly Ondine. Not so much Esa-Pekka Salonen – whose engaging if often meretricious recent music has had a decent showing in the UK, though the chance to hear the calculated histrionics of Floof (1988) – his extra-terrestrial cabaret inspired by Stanislaw Lem – performed from memory by soprano Anu Komsi and backed by the crack Avanti! ensemble, was not to be passed over. Best known as a Baroque keyboard specialist, Jukka Tiensuu exhibits a barbed wit in his clarinet concerto Puro (1989), though not even a performance of the bravado displayed by Kari Kriikku – fearlessly improvising his cadenza – could suggest other than an expertly organised series of Modernist clichés, though the fact this is now the second most-played Finnish concerto (after, of course, that for violin by Sibelius) says much for its enlivening of the medium.

More absorbing on a purely musical level was the epic Piano Concerto (1996) by Kimmo Hakola, receiving only its second performance. Hakola’s approach to his Modernist inheritance is altogether more indulgent than that of his contemporaries, juxtaposing the sombre and slapstick in a manner which recalls the earlier poly-stylistics of Schnittke – though without the spiritual angst. There was no lack of variety, still less of incident, in the 54 minutes this piece took to expound its pluralist world-view; its nine movements ranging from the rebarbative to the transcendent, with the fiendish-sounding cadenza acting as a tenacious structural pivot. The performance was another triumph for Nicolas Hodges, clearly spurred on by the piece’s expressive overkill and backed to the hilt – in what often had the feeling of a theatrical ‘double-act’ – by Saraste, but the question as to whether Hakola is a major talent has to be left open. In its comparatively modest way, the intricate interplay of textures in Tapio Tuomela’s Virvatulia (Feux follets) for solo accordion (1996) left as distinctly musical an impression – especially when played with the finesse evinced by Veli Kujala.

Most impressive from this ‘middle generation’ was the music featured by Jouni Kaipainen – little heard here since Salonen gave his Symphony No.1 with the BBCSO some 14 years ago. Contemporary with that work is his Third String Quartet (1984), a performance of which concluded the New Helsinki Quartet’s impressive Saturday morning recital (in terms of programming, indeed, the highlight of the weekend). Although cast in four movements, Kaipainen’s Quartet is anything but orthodox in its formal follow-through – being brutal, conciliatory, quixotic, then valedictory in its emotional progression, and highly personal in its use of a freely atonal idiom. A more self-contained side to Kaipainen’s thinking was displayed in two arias from the TV opera “The Miracle at Constance” – begun in 1987 and seeminglystill in progress. If the finely-judged irony of ‘The Question’ and the wistful depth of ‘Lullaby’ are indicative of the whole, this treatment of religious intrigues at the 1418 Council of Constance should be worth waiting for – especially if Anu Komsi is on hand to take the role of the Hermitess that she so tellingly conveyed here. And should Sakari Oramo choose to programme Kaipainen’s powerful Second Symphony in Birmingham at some point, your reviewer will need no prompting to attend.

The senior generation of Finnish composers was in evidence too – one in twin thrall to the legacy of Sibelius and the urging of post-Webernian serialism, but whose evolutions are rarely less than absorbing. Tuija Hakkila’s recital included the Fourth Piano Sonata ‘Epyllion II’ (1974) by Usko Meriläinen – in which stratified use of serial techniques, coupled with imaginative deployment of non-standard procedures, results in a substantial piece which purposefully revisits the standard four-movement format.

Interesting, too, to hear Einojuhani Rautavaara immersing himself in serialism of the Schoenbergian variety in his Second String Quartet (1958), producing a work whose echoes of inter-war Expressionism are channelled through intricate textures no less sensuous and more expressively acute than those of theneo-Romantic scores on which his reputation rests. Even here, there is a touch of the garrulousness that mars his later work – something one could not level at the painstaking, methodical approach of Joonas Kokkonen, whose Third String Quartet (1976) draws on aspects of his opera The Last Temptations in three diverse movements which, if not more than the sum of their parts, impress in their rigorous tonal integration: above all, the Adagio which closes the work in subdued contemplation.

More famous now for an ongoing series of operas of dramatic immediacy if relatively little emotional resonance, Aulis Sallinen broke with serial thinking in his early ‘thirties. His Third String Quartet (1969), memorably subtitled ‘Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March’, is as intriguing a re-engagement with tonal discourse as he has achieved – taking the theme of a Finnish folk-fiddler as the basis of variations which stretch the source material’s harmonic and rhythmic qualities in ever-more unexpected ways.

Contrast this with Paavo Heininen’s Musique d’été (1963): its uncompromising serial approach made to yield music both lyrical and angular in its onward progression – resulting in a ‘chamber symphony’ of real substance, and rendered with sure attention to dynamic contrasts by Avanti!. Mentor to a whole generation of Finnish composers, Heininen is a significant figure unlikely to receive his due outside of his own country: it would be good if performances such as this were not isolated incidents. Nor has nonagenarian Erik Bergman been given credit here for his vitality and creative renewal over a long career. Even when limited to solo piano, his music loses none of its individuality – as demonstrated by the dense rhythmic machinations of Omaggio a Cristoforo Colombo (1991): an equivocal ‘celebration’ of 500 years since that fateful arrival on the island of Guanahani.

Two composers born in the 1890s made a welcome showing. Väinö Raitio has latterly attracted attention as the first Finnish composer to draw on Scriabin as a primary influence. That said, his Fantasia poetica (1923) had little more than scintillating orchestral effects – directly derived from the Russian composer’s Prometheus – and vivid immediacy to commend it, though Saraste’s advocacy was unstinting. A pity that one of Aarre Merikanto’s orchestral works from the 1920s could not have been included instead, as his fervid Expressionism has few parallels in the music of that era. However, Avanti! did include his ‘Schott’ Concerto (1925) in its recital. Winner of a competition sponsored by the publishing house of that name, this toughly-argued piece pits clarinet (the excellent Heikki Nikula) and horn (the slightly unsteady Tero Toivonen) against a string sextet in a work whose interrelated three movements chart an eventful course via polytonal means such as more illustrious composers of the period employed merely anecdotally. Intensely expressive, Merikanto’s music should be far better known outside Finland than is the case: above all, Juha – his only mature opera and one which can claim to be the most significant Finnish stage-work – is still unperformed in the UK.

No retrospective such as this could knowingly exclude the music of Sibelius. Tuija Hakkila gave us the B flat minor Sonatina (1912) – third and finest of the Op.67 triptych, and a significant step on the way to an idiom of ever greater Classical poise. Played continuously, the three movements readily demonstrated their fluid motivic interconnections. Pleasant if unremarkable were Rêverie and Des Abends, first and fifth of the Op.58 set of Ten Pieces (1909), but the orchestral songs included in Saraste’s first concert gave a decent overview of why the genre ranks second in importance only to Sibelius’s orchestral output. If the operatic scena “The Rapids-Rider’s Brides” (1897) is too workaday to be considered a worthy precursor of “Luonnotar”, both “The Silent City” and “A Maiden Yonder Sings” (both from the Op.50 set of 1906) have a touching directness in advance of most art-songs from the 1900s, with “Spring Fleets Fast” (1891), “The Song of the Cross-Spider” and “To Evening” (both 1898) making up a sequence in which Sibelius’s response to a range of subjects (and languages!) was tellingly caught. Persuasive too was Gabriel Suovanen – his rounded, incisive baritone ideal for the brooding intensity that Sibelius so often distils in his setting of texts.

The music-side of the weekend ended with Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony (1924) – emerging here as inward and implacable, yet with a light and shade to its textural contrasts and an inevitability in its tonal follow-through such as Saraste has brought to accounts of the preceding three Sibelius symphonies during his time as the BBC Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor.

As well as concerts, Kaiku also featured a complement of films to shed light on an important aspect of Finnish culture, and there was also a late-evening Tango session with Avanti!. Apparently the national Finnish dance since the 1930s, and a match for The Beatles in the Finnish pop charts during the early ’60s, the selection here – interspersed with the very different pleasures of the slow movement from Merikanto’s Nonet and a souped-up arrangement of Sibelius’s perennial Valse triste – gave a good account of why this music should have taken such a hold on the Finnish national consciousness, and provided a welcome platform for the skills of veteran tango singer Markus Allen. If the bittersweet tang of Toivo Kärki’s “The Lily Flower” and the evocative arrangement of Rauli Badding Somerjoki’s “Drifting Clouds” most clearly demonstrated a Finnish angle, the entire 50 minutes was a pleasurable example of people from this small but culturally influential country enjoying themselves in style.

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