Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Angels and Birds

Over the last couple of decades the name of Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928) has become familiar to audiences outside Finland, such that his music seems to have rather eclipsed his younger compatriots - especially here in the United Kingdom. With its long melodies and radiantly tonal harmonies, his music is just the sort of emotionally satisfying thing that goes down well with audiences and critics in these post-avant garde days. Add in the appeal of 'angels' as a concept and his success is easily understood. 

I'll try to sum up Rautavaara's development as a composer, as far as I understand it: He began as a tonal composer, then in the mid '50s embraced serialism (albeit a flexible, accessible brand of serialism with plenty of touches of tonality) before from the mid '6os on making a determined attempt to fuse serialism with tonality - an attempt that was fully achieved by the mid '8os and has remained the hallmark of his style ever since. I have to say that the serial character of his post-'6os pieces is something you can very easily miss. It usually sounds purely tonal to me. 

If there's one work we hear more than any other by Einojuhani Rautavaara it's his 'concerto for birds and orchestra' Cantus arcticus from 1972, a work I have to say I never tire of re-hearing. The piece is an orchestral work but also uses taped bird song, recorded by the composer himself in the northern marshes of Finland. The birds are the soloists in the 'concerto'. As you will hear, if you aren't already familiar with this beautiful masterpiece, the result is anything but gimmicky. When I first heard it, the piece immediately appealed to me. Its language reminded me a little of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams (two composers close to my heart) but it has a character that is unique to this composer. 

The first movement, The Bog, begins with wheeling flutes flying in, unaccompanied. As the taped birds enter the scene, trills pervade the winds, brass honk and a plaintive two-note call is heard. The whole bog is quivering with birds and anticipation. The strings enter with the beautiful, majestic melody that stands at the heart of this great movement.This modal tune, which seems to stand for nature in all its glory, is then re-sung by the brass with magical sprinklings of percussion then re-harmonised sumptuously as the climax is approached. Calm floats in as the brass and percussion begin the melody's wind-down and the soulful sound of a solo cello is heard before the tune ebbs away back into the melancholy opening music. 

The central movement, Melancholy, opens to taped birds along (doleful-sounding ones) before the strings enter with ethereal, elegiac beauty. (Comparisons to the Vaughan Williams of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies, or Alan Hovhaness, strike me most strongly here). The harmonies you will hear during this movement are especially characteristic of the composer and you will hear their like again later in this post (if you so choose!). 

The title of the third movement, Swans migrating, might well make you think of the finale of Sibelius's Fifth symphony, which also evoked the majesty of swans in flight over the Finnish lakes. It starts with a marvellous clamour of taped birds, out of which emerges another anticipatory quiver of string and woodwind phrases, recalling those of the first movement. This too grows into a clamour and, in time, through it soars another glorious modal tune, making its first appearance on brass and rising as it changes colour (at one stage featuring a Hovhaness-like trumpet), lifting at least this particular listener into a state of delight. The ebbing-away that follows is both subtle and atmospheric.

If you don't already know it I hope you will give it a listen and hope even more that you will enjoy it as much as I (and many, many others) enjoy it.

The other work that has swept all before it is the Seventh Symphony, 'Angel of Light' from 1994. When the composer went global in the late '90s this was at the forefront of his march to fame. It seems to me to be one of Rautavaara's more Sibelius-like symphonies - a fact that would endear it to me straight away! 

In the first movement, Tranquillo,  an elegiac melody grows out of a pool of strings and glinting glockenspiel and vibraphone, chiming at delicious harmonic tangents. The melody spreads through the strings and is reflected through constantly changing harmonies - harmonies that are so characteristic of this composer. A measure of tension enters the music and a powerful passage of climactic writing brings in the brass and woodwinds - a passage that has what seems (to me) like a curious echo of the fall of Valhalla in Wagner's Götterdämmerung. The winds remain and help explore the main melody, as a development section might do. This gentle, lovely passage might well remind you at times of Sibelius and at times of the Cantus arcticus. A glorious return of the 'Valhalla' music leads to the recapitulation of the main melody. 

The scherzo's framing sections are very different and show a streak of Shostakovich-style jeering on winds and xylophone. These gargoyle-like sections enclose music far more typical of he symphony as a whole, with slower yet still mobile writing sending arching string melodies through characteristic chord sequences.

Bearing the marking Come un sogno ('Like a dream'), the slow movement carries us into an unworldly, angelic place and is the symphony's still centre. It is sublime. The violins play a wide-spun, hymn-like melody and send it through more of those characteristic radiant harmonies. Horn and woodwind later introduce a pastoral spirit into this serene music. A very short climax leads to the loveliest stretch of all when the opening section returns with a solo violin playing the melody against enchanting shimmerings from woodwinds. Utter magic!

The Pesante finale opens with a stern brass fanfare before the strings embark on another melody and begin helping its tendrils spread, adding florid woodwind decoration. Only when the brass enter does the movement take off. Here nobility sings out against glorious swirls, akin to the swirls of bird calls around the modal melody of Cantus arcticus. It sounds magnificent, but the symphony is not to end triumphantly; instead it vanishes into mystery. 

Angel of Light can stand for the late style of Rautavaara and Cantus arcticus as representative of the pieces written during the composer's evolution to that late style. What of his serialist pieces and the works that preceded them? 

As representative of the early Rautavaara, the Suite for Strings of 1952 shows a composer interested in folk music and writing in the stylistic orbit of those great composers who also exalted folk music - shades of Kodaly, Bartok, Holst, Vaughan Williams - plus a tinge of Stravinskyan neo-Classicism. The tune of the central Andante sounds strikingly like the sort of melody found throughout the output of Kodaly. 

Representing the serialist phase, step forward the mighty Third Symphony of 1961.

The opening is an astonishing echo of the opening of Bruckner's Fourth ('Romantic') - the same tremolo, the same horn call (at least for a few notes) - over which Rautavaarian woodwinds play bird calls (anticipating Cantus arcticus). That Bruckner symphony seems to be the inspiration for this masterpiece of serial symphonism. 'Serial' it may be, being based as it is on a typical 12-note row, but do you think it sounds 'serialist'? It doesn't sound serial to me I have to say; no, it sounds instea like a large-scale Romantic symphony in the mould of Bruckner - or Mahler - with plenty for lovers of opulent, emotional, melody-driven music to sink their teeth into and the harmonic rules are clearly written so that as much tonality can flood into the music as possible. By the 8.00 mark into the first movement, you can hear waves of harmony that seem to combine those characteristic of the composer's later style with those of Bruckner - a fascinating mix. 

The slow movement, containing more bird calls, unfolds a stream of elegiac melody and is the introspective heart of the symphony, going into some quite anxious places whilst remaining beautiful. 

The ghost of Bruckner's scherzi haunts the third movement though the movement soon ventures into stranger, chromatic territory, with more of the composer's swirling woodwind figuration playing their part. There's a countryside feel to some of its passages too. It is music that should keep you on the edge of your seat throughout - as should the finale. 

The Bruckner 'Romantic' horn call returns in this magnificent closing movement - a movement that lifts some of the tension generated by the other movements and combines heroic excitement with good humour. There is a particularly close encounter with the third movement of Bruckner's Ninth at one of the climaxes. (If you know that symphony you are bound to spot it). Characteristically, there isn't quite the ending you would expect after the grand sweep of the movement up to that point. 

Finland's great living composer? A lot of people seem to think so - and I'm one of them!

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