RAUTAVAARA:  Concerto for Harp and Orchestra.  Symphony No. 8, "The Journey."
Marielle Nordmann, harp; Helsinki Philharmonic Orch/Leif Segerstam, cond.
ONDINE ODE 978 (F) (DDD) TT:  52:30

A brochure that accompanies this CD proclaims it Ondine’s 20th release of music by the Finnish composer who has finished first in the post-Sibelius Olympics—ahead of such competitors as Joonas Kokkonen (1921-96), a dour neo-Classicist best known elsewhere for his opera The Last Temptation, and Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935), a more prolific composer of concert music plus two operas that have been recorded, Kullervo and The Palace.

Whereas Kokkonen wrote four symphonies, and Sallinen six (to date), Rautawaara has eight to his credit—No. 7 is better known as Angel of Light—all of them recorded by Ondine, plus two operas, Thomas and Vincent [as in Van Gogh]. Stylistically his music has ranged all over the globe. I remember an abrasively ugly string quartet in RCA’s short-lived Catalyst series, coupled with an early recording of the neo-Romantic Cantus Arcturus (the piece with with live bird calls, arguably Rautawaara’s most popular work to date) and what may, but then may not have been Symphony No. 5. I sent it to friend who is into Cantus Arcturus-type music, as I shall send this one tomorow.

The Concerto was written in Y2K for the Minnesota Orchestra and its principal harpist, Kathy Kienzle, who edited the solo part for publication. Rautawaara explains in a program note what he wanted to do, and how, including two orchestral harps to back up the soloist for a “solenne” effect in a finale that doesn’t quite come off, at least not here. Neither did I hear the “drama” he intended. The music, after two basically tranquil movements indebted to Debussy and Messiaen, gets more aggressive, but paradoxically the temperature does not rise. The work’s initial theme borrows (minus the ominous double-basses) from the opening measures of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, but sidesteps the stark drama of that work. Basically it is background music for an intimate dinner—at least the first two movements, and since CDs can be programmed, the finale is skippable.

So is, for me, most of the 29-minute Eighth Symphony that follows, composed in 1999 and subtitled The Journey. I played it several times over but kept getting distracted by other things, like the newspaper waiting to be read, for want of substance to compel and the focus attention. A scherzo marked “feroce” starts promisingly but quits after 3 minutes. To call the finale “con grandezza” struck me as self-aggrandizing. Symphony No. 8 is a piece that vacillates between neo-Romantic and neo-Impressionistic without any subject matter one might call Rautawaarian—or for that matter any other composer’s.

The solo harpist, Marielle Nordmann from France, is a pupil of the celebrated Lily Laskine. Her performance sounds (without a score to check) at once impeccable and poetic. Leif Segerstam, of the Taliban-length beard, leads Finland’s oldest orchestra, which named him chief conductor in 1995—this in addition to his multiple duties elsewhere in Scandinavia. His mood has tended to be expansive in almost all the music he has recorded in recent years, but the sonority achieved in both pieces here is impressive, and has been opulently recorded. From this point on, though, you’ll have to mush it alone.

R.D. (Feb. 2002)