MERIKANTO: Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 5. Symphony No. 3
Turku Philharmonic Orch/Petri Sakari, cond.

KUULA: Legends 2 (Hymn of the Sea, Op. 11/2. Festive March, Op. 5. I Rock My Echo, Op. 11/6. Song of the Sepulchre, Op. 11/5. Festive Cantata. Lullaby, Op. 11/4. Melody, Op. 29b. March of the Club Warriors, Op. 28/4.
Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis/Timo Lehtovaara; Turku Philharmonic Orch/Petri Sakari, cond.
ALBA SACD ABCD 326 TT: 68:45

POHJOLA: String Quartet No. 1. String Quartet No. 2. String Quartet No. 3. String Quartet No. 4
Kamus Quartet

The enterprising Alba label has three new SACDs devoted to important Finnish composers—all new to me. Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958) was a key figure of early Finnish music. His father, Oskar Marikanto, was the country's leading composer of songs. After studies in Helsinki, Leipzig and Moscow, Merikanto began composing and soon developed a persona, atonal style that was well received outside Finland, but frowned upon by Finland's musical circles. He soon returned to his older style. While a professor at the Sibelius Academy (1951-1958), he taught Einojuhani Rautavaara, Aulis Sallinen and Paavo Heininen. His works include the opera Juha, two piano concertos (which have been recorded), two cello concertos, and three violin concertos, the last of which he destroyed along with many other works. Now we have the opportunity to hear the first two of his three symphonies, composed 1916 and 1918, pleasant but rather prosaic when compared with Sibelius's symphonies, the first five of which had been completed by 1915. The strongest possible case for this music is provided by the excellent orchestra under Petri Sakari's direction. The recordings were made in March 2010 in Turku's Concert Hall, and producer Simon Fox-Gál has captured a very warm, natural orchestral sound in multi-channel. But don't expect any masterpieces here.

Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) is best known for his colorful music based on Finnish culture and folklore. In 1909, Kuula became the first composition student of Sibelius. He composed for the most part music for chorus and solo piano, but his works also include the orchestral Ostrobothian suites. His major choral work is his Stabat Mater, which remained incomplete when he died. after being shot in a political conflict. Apparently much of his music was unperformed for decades because the music was in script and difficult to decipher. This disk, the second in a series, contains a selection of Kuula's choral works, some accompanied by small orchestra, some by organ. Several are cantatas, and almost all of the music is subdued, almost reverential. Even the works with a festive title are rather subdued. Complete texts in Finnish and English are provided, and rather extensive program notes are provided by Tero Tommila who is chairman of the Toivo Kuula Society. The "surround sound" effect doesn't exist.

Seppo Pohjola (b. 1965) is among the leading avant-garde Finnish composers. His works include three symphonies, three chamber operas, and four string quartets. The four string quartets are heard on this fascinating SACD, in authoritative performances by the skilled Kamus Quartet, each a virtuoso. String Quartet No. 1 was Pohjola's first work to attract major attention, and for good reason. Less than 6 minutes in length and in three movements, it is replete with odd, unusual sounds as the strings skitter and pluck their way through a mysterious labyrinth. Quartets 2 and 3 are about 16 minutes in length, and Quartet No. 4 takes 33. All are challenging listening, but compelling, with sounds usually not associated with chamber music. The turbulent Quartet No. 4 slowly fades away into nothingness, reminiscent of the ending of Mahler's Symphony No. 9. Obviously Pohjola is a major figure on the contemporary scene, and this superb SACD should help acquaint audiences with his work. Audio is super-clear, and close-up. Recommended!

R.E.B. (August 2012)