Saturday, October 22, 2016

Rautavaara: A Basic Discography

Einojuhanni Rautavaara (1928-2016) was not only the most significant Finnish composer after Sibelius, but very probably among the finest of all later-twentieth century masters regardless of nationality. Rautavaara is undoubtedly the greatest composer most people have never heard of, and that's certainly a shame, for his music is fascinating, engagingly multi-faceted, often beautiful, deeply rewarding on many levels, and virtually always entertaining.

Stylistically, through the course of his long career, Rautavaara was all over the map, from the arid, pointillist soundscapes of modish 50s-era serialism, to the highly accessible, lushly consonant tone-paintings of twenty-first-century neo-romanticism, and, seemingly, everywhere in between. Probably his best-known work, the Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra), Op. 61 falls squarely in this latter category. So much more than a mere experimental piece in which tape of diverse bird songs and calls are accompanied by an orchestra, this is a powerful, haunting work of art, in which the composer achieves a kind of mystical polyphonic synergy between the sounds of nature and the instruments of the orchestra, with moments so poignant and achingly beautiful as to bring the listener close to tears.

Like his contemporaries Pärt, Tavener, Penderecki, and--to some extent--Górecki, Rautavaara often explored spiritual and mystical themes, as in the early neo-classical Requiem in Our Time and the avant garde Playgrounds for Angels, both for brass ensemble, the relatively late Symphony #7 'Angel of Light' or his a cappella choral magnum opus Vigilate. He seemed to draw inspiration from everything around him, whether seen or unseen, but his metaphysical musings are neither treacly nor insincere. One never gets the  sense of being manipulated, proselytized or beaten over the head with the flail of absolute certainty, or bored to tears (as so often with Tavener) by an overly opportunistic or downright mercenary mysticism or (as occasionally with Penderecki) stale dogmatic digression.

To those seeking a relatively painless way into the world of Rautavaara, I highly recommend the 1999 Naxos release from Hanu Lintu and the Scottish National Orchestra, which includes Cantus Arcticus in a lovely reading with just the right balance of understated power, awe and exultation, as well as the Symphony #3 and the Piano Concerto #1. Well-played and superbly recorded, this album makes a near-perfect introduction to the composer's oeuvre. Those who find their appetites sufficiently whetted may next want to explore the series of 4-disc boxed sets compiled by the Finnish Ondine label in 2009: 'The 8 Symphonies' (Ondine ODE 1145-2Q), and the twelve (of the composer's fourteen) Concertos, including 'Cantus Arcticus' (Ondine ODE 1156-2Q), as well as a generous sampling of choral works (Ondine ODE 1186-2Q (2012)). Ondine has done yeoman service in recording so much of the composer's work over the years, and readers will note that all but one of the items in the following discography (based on my own collection) originate from that prestigious label.

Naxos 8.554147 (1999)
Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) 
Piano Concerto #1 Op. 45
Symphony #3 Op. 20
Laura Mikkola (piano)
Hannu Lintu/Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Ondine ODE 1186-2Q (4-disc box set) (2012 compilation)
Rautavaara: Choral Works

Ondine ODE 1156-2Q (4-disc box set) (2009 compilation)
Rautavaara: 12 Concertos

Ondine ODE 1145-2Q (4-disc box set) (2009 compilation)
Rautavaara: The 8 Symphonies

Ondine 1000-2 (2-disc set) (2003)
Rautavaara: Alexis Kivi (opera in three acts)
Jorma Hynenin et al.
Markus Lehtinen/Jyväskylä Sinfonia

Ondine 750-2 (2-disc set) (1995) 
Rautavaara: Vincent (opera in three acts)
Jorma Hynenin et al.
Fuat Manchurov/Finnish National Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Ondine 1125-2D (2008)
Rautavaara: Complete Works for Male Choir
Matti Hyökki/YL Male Voice Choir
Pasi Hyökki/Talla Vocal Ensemble

Ondine 1085-2 (2006)
Rautavaara: Song of My Heart (Orchestral Songs)
Gabriel Suovanen
Lief Segerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Ondine 1149-2 (2010)
Rautavaara: Before the Icons
A Tapestry of Life
Lief Segerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Ondine 957-2 (2000)
Rautavaara: A Requiem in Our Time (Complete Works for Brass)
Hannu Lintu/Finnish Brass Symphony

Ondine 909-2 (1998)
Rautavaara: Quintet for Strings 'Unknown Heavens'
String Quartet #1 
String Quartet #2 Op. 12
Jean Sibelius String Quartet et al.

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