Two Major Late Works Continue Rautavaara Survey

Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was a professor and teacher at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. (Photo: Ari Korkala)
 By Paul E. Robinson

90th Anniversary Edition. Rautavaara: Harp Concerto. Symphony No. 8 “The Journey.” Marielle Nordmann, harp. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam, conductor. Also, Rautavaara Sampler (excerpts from Ondine’s Rautavaara Discography). Ondine ODE 1236 (2 CDs). Total Time: 52:30 + 69:06.

DIGITAL REVIEW – At the time of his death in 2016 at age 87, Einojuhani Rautavaara was widely hailed as the greatest Finnish composer since Sibelius. Recently, the Finnish label Ondine, which has made it a mission to record every note he wrote, issued a 90th anniversary edition of his music, consisting of two major works from his later years and a sampling of pieces from every stage of his long career as a composer.

Because Sibelius (1865-1957) did not write anything of substance in the last 31 years of his life, nearly 100 years passed without the emergence of a Finnish composer of similar stature. While Rautavaara (1928-2016) was undoubtedly a fine composer, it remains to be seen whether his reputation will ever grow to rival that of his great forebear.

Rautavaara, who was born and raised in Helsinki, went to the United States in his 20s to study with Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard and with Roger Sessions at Tanglewood. During these early years, he wrote in a fairly traditional style, often with echoes of Sibelius, but then moved on to embrace serial techniques. By the 1970s, he had adopted a neo-romantic idiom, and in his final period, from the late 1980s on, he found his own voice with a style that explored a highly personal range of instrumental colors. Curiously, one of his best-known works, the Cantus Arcticus, which uses sounds of Arctic birds, is not represented in this 90th anniversary edition, nor is the extraordinary early choral work, Vigilia.

The composer, who created his Harp Concerto (2000) in response to a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra, rightly suggests that the primary reason there are so few harp concertos in the repertoire is that “composers generally do not know the instrument very well.” The modern harp has 47 strings, as well as seven pedals for altering the pitch of the strings. Extensive chromaticism is generally considered unsuitable for the instrument, since it requires almost unbelievable virtuosity from a harpist. Another problem  for a composer setting out to write a harp concerto is that the instrument, usually unamplified, is easily overwhelmed by even a small orchestra. Rautavaara cleverly solves this problem at several climactic points in his concerto by having the solo harpist assisted by two others.

In Rautavaara’s Harp Concerto, a strikingly beautiful piece, the first movement turns on a hypnotic four-note motive that returns again and again throughout the orchestra and in the solo part. The second movement, like the first, is slow-moving and also lyrical. In the final movement, the most dramatic, Rautavaara doesn’t hesitate to unleash cataclysmic waves of percussion. Solo harpist Marielle Nordmann, at least on a recording, seems able to hold her own.

Symphony No. 8 (The Journey), composed the year before the Harp Concerto, was given its first performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The work, according to Rautavaara, is intended to depict “a journey through human life,” whatever that means. The composer provides little explanation and adds a cryptic note at the end of the symphony: “its flow leads into a broad delta, into the eternal sea.” But then, if a composer could put his ideas into words, he wouldn’t need to write the music.

Rautavaara’s Eighth – the Eighth Symphony that Sibelius never wrote, perhaps? – is a formidable piece. In its use of small motives gradually developing into apocalyptic statements, the music recalls that of Sibelius. But Rautavaara is very much his own man in his mastery of vast orchestral resources and creation of complex contemporary textures, though The Journey ends with a triumphant major chord. His last completed symphony, the work has already had no fewer than four recordings, and this latest one, conducted with precision and fervor by Leif Segerstam, may be the best.

It should be noted that the two major works included in this 90th anniversary edition were originally released by Ondine in 2001 as ODE 978-2. While one might ask why Ondine did not produce something new and special for this anniversary release, the company can hardly be faulted for the work it has done over the years to promote this composer’s music; to date, it has released no fewer than 48 CDs or CD sets devoted entirely to his compositions.

One of Rautavaara’s most illustrious students is Finnish conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, in the news recently for his appointment as the next music director of the San Francisco Symphony, succeeding Michael Tilson Thomas. Curiously, to the best of my knowledge, in Salonen’s voluminous discography there is not a single work by Rautavaara, nor does Salonen seem to include any of that composer’s music in his concert programs. Let’s hope that will change in the future.  Rautavaara is worth it.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for and