SALLINEN: Shadows, Op. 52. Symphony No. 8, Op. 81. Violin Concerto, Op. 18. The Palace Rhapsody, Op. 72.
Jaakko Kuusisto, violinist; Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Ari Rasilainen, cond.
cpo 999 972 (F) (DDD) TT: 67:52

From the half-century of Finnish composers since Sibelius’ death in 1957 – among them Joonas Kokkonen, Einar Englund, Kahlevi Aho and Einojuhari Rautavaara (current flavor of the month worldwide, it would seem) – for me the most fascinating is Aulis Sallinen, now 70 and still composing. He managed to get around the miasma of avant-garde cliches that followed worldwide disenchantment with the Second Viennese School without ending up in the ice-cream churn of neo-Romanticism. Not that his music hasn’t been neo-Romantic in recent years, but Sallinen has his own personality and style – a Finnish George Rochberg one might say – both elfin and somber. His basic technique as defined in Martin Anderson’s elegant program note is “the habitual juxtaposition of contrasting musical generate tension and musical ambiguity.” The clash of disparate blocks of sound can last whole movements, but underneath flows a Stygian stream of implied disenchantment with the dark side of mankind, and a barely suppressed violence that suddenly erupts like a geyser.

Not everything works all of the time, but the best of Sallinen’s music haunts one although his thematic materials are not the kind one whistles at the end of a performance. In the violin concerto of 1968 – this is its third recording, and a superb one too by Jaakko Kuusisto – virtually all of the Andante first movement intervals are major- and minor-seconds within a cantabile context. The remaining two movements are joined – a haunting Larghetto and an Allegro giocoso that sometimes belies its jollity – with marvels of subtle scoring that invite rehearings, especially for the percussion writing. The Eighth Symphony of 2001 was commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam although the premiere was delayed until last year. Its three movements, played without pause, are the work of a master. The subtitle “Autumnal Fragments” not only reflects the composer’s age but the horror of September 11. In Anderson’s words, Sallinen “builds his structure from alternating blocks of different musical character... disparate elements gradually coalescing.” It includes, as do other of his works, music from operas, in this case Kullervo’s “Theme of the Dead.” Yet a bell-theme in the finale is built on notes from the orchestra’s name: C,C,E,G,E,A,E,D,A. However, words can’t impart the flavor of Sallinen’s music any more than kitchen aromas satisfy the palate; you have to hear it for full effect.

The other two works inhabit a lesser level of inspiration, although the opening section of Shadows, commissioned in 1982 by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC, pays implicit tribute to Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, with a thematic link to Sallinen’s opera The King Goes Forth to France. Likewise, the Palace Rhapsody for winds and percussion has roots in a 1995 opera, The Palace – “one of the few modern operas that is laugh-out-loud funny” according to Anderson. Even so, “the ominous shadow of violence – the same indeed as that of Shadows – hangs over the music.” I have played and replayed Ari Rasilainen’s vividly idiomatic as well as fastidious performances with the Rhineland-Palatinate Orchestra, each time hearing something new and expressively moving. It turns out that cpo is recording all of Sallinen’s orchestral music, and that another disc containing Symphonies 1 and 7 is already in the catalogue. Finally, recorded sound from the Philharmonie at Ludwigshafen – the orchestra’s principal home – is superb not only as balanced but in timbre.
Fervently recommended!

R.D. (June 2005)