Singers at Six – Finnish Landscapes

Photo: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Karavaanikuoro, Op.21/1
Nuits, adieux
The Beaufort Scale, Op.56
Rakastava, Op.14

BBC Singers
Stephen Cleobury

Reviewed by: Peter Grahame Woolf

Reviewed: 21 November, 2002
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London

This forty-minute programme (recorded for Radio 3) was designed as a prelude to the Barbican Hall’s main event of the evening – Saariaho’s widely acclaimed opera, L’Amour de loin, and proved an interesting exploration of Finnish choral culture including arrangements and re-compositions.

The 1912 Caravan Chorus by Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) was published posthumously – the composer having been shot dead – and lightened by Madetoja who reduced the twelve parts of the original. Sibelius’s Rakastava (1894) is to my ears more effective in its rarely-heard unaccompanied choral original (rather than the version for string orchestra), while Kaija Saariaho’s Nuits, adieux (1991/96) was fascinating in a new version with echoes, delays and other electronic effects transferred to the choir.

Perfectly balanced and packed with aural stimulation, the BBC Singers’ sequence was framed by two splendidly quirky pieces, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s Pseudo-Yoik (1994) given first.Mäntyjärvi (born 1963), whom I met at the Cork Choral Festival, is a part-time composer whose setting of a meaningless nonsense text (composed as an encore piece and intended to represent a Lapland stereotype) brought him unexpected fame, and considerable fortune, from its popularity with Finnish choirs. A wise and witty polymath, Mäntyjärvi’s lecture at Cork was an eye-opener into the world of choral singing, of central importance in his country’s musical life.

Aulis Sallinen’s 1984 exposition of Beaufort’s original Wind Scale, still in use, took us from complete calm to Force Twelve hurricane, ending quietly with an unanswered SOS and a quiet watery death – to send us out again into the inclement November weather.

The BBC Singers are in fine fettle and this was an impressive demonstration of their collective vocal strength and of the individual excellence of those who took solos.Afterwards, I found it hard to adjust to the undifferentiated ’beautifulness’ of Saariaho’s slow-paced two-hour operatic setting of a sad, simple tale about love between a 12th-century Troubadour and a distant Countess – very different from Saariaho’s early music. A go-between maintained the interest across the sea, with a love-death resolution at the end when they actually meet. Saariaho seeks contemporary relevance and, in a pre-concert interview with the composer, Anthony Burton aptly likened it to real-life ’lovers’ who become mutually attracted and aroused by getting to know each other on the Internet!

  • “I write music because it makes no sense to do so” – Jaakko Mäntyjärvi speaks about his particular outlook on music. [click here]

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