RAUTAVAARA: Symphony No. 7 "Angel of Light." Angels and Visitations.
Royal Scottish National Orch/Hannu Koivula, cond.
NAXOS 8.555814 (B) (DDD) TT: 56:02

Since the Seventh Symphony in 1994, Einojuhani Rautavarra (that’s I-no-yu-hahni Raoo-ta-vaah-ra) composed an Eighth Symphony (“The Journey”) in 1999, recorded by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic on the Finnish label, Ondine, where he took over from Max Pommer and the Leipzig Radio SO after No. 6. Pommer, however, was the pace- setter (who even made No.6 in Helsinki), although the success of Cantus Arcticus—a 1972 concerto for birds and orchestra that everyone seems to like but I—made Rautavaara an international celebrity. His style changed several times between 1955 and the mid-‘80s, not surprisingly considering that his teachers included Vincent Persichetti, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions (at The Juilliard as well as Tanglewood on a Koussevitzky scholarship recommended by Sibelius), the Russian-born Schoenbergian Wladimir Vogel in Ascona, Italy, and British-born Rudolf Petzold in Cologne. By 1971, however, Rautavaara’s name had yet to appear in the Fifth Edition Supplement of Baker’s Dictionary edited by Nicolas Slonimsky.

In the the’70s (vide the “Birds” Concerto and choral Vigilia) he moved step by slow step away from strict serialism and the liberal use of “chance” (i.e. aleatoric) music backwards into tonality, as Penderecki had already done in his opera Paradise Lost. Rautavaara never entirely eschewed the avant-garde techniques he mastered as a student and lectured about at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki from 1966 to 1971, when he was promoted to professor. If Pommer and Ondine were his principal champions, BIS and Naxos took up the cause albeit with some caution: Kanterow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta recorded Symphony No. 2 for Naxos in 1987 along with two of the composer’s numerous pieces with “Angel(s)” in their titles, and No. 3 by H(anno?) Lintu and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1997, which the coupled Cantus Articus put over the top at a budget price worldwide. Two years earlier Segerstam had become Ondine’s official ER conductor with No. 7, also recorded in 1999 on BIS by Jaaku Kuuvisto and the Lahti Symphony.

Which brings us to this Seventh Symphony, again by the Royal Scots, this time led by Hannu Koivula (b. 1960), another member of Jorma Panula’s star-making conducting classes at the Helsinki Academy. (Mikko Franck is the youngest and last; Panula has moved since to the Stockholm Conservatory.) Koivula knows his business as a batonist, and Rautavaara as a disciple. The Symphony, in four movements, is subtitled “Angel of Light” although it has dark and turbulent passages, reminding one of a latter-day Tapiola, Sibelius’ last major work for orchestra, composed two years before Rautawaara’s birth. But the putative successor of Finland’s most celebrated composer has become lyrical in his old age, with a continuity throughout the Seventh Symphony, apart from a return to first movement materials in the last of four. If it is not “casual listening” music, withal, repeated hearings produce a respect that becomes haunting in the best sense. I had forgotten all about Cantus Arcticus by the third hearing, and even embraced Angels and Visitations from 1978, based like his other “Angel” pieces on “childhood dreams.” A&V is perhaps too long by a third at nearly 21 minutes, but the craft and accumulating menace keep rekindling attention with a series of dissonantly aleatoric sonic jolts.

I don’t know the competing versions (Segerstam’s, I’ll guess, is longer which is not to say better; Kuuvisto is a name new to me). But Naxos’ combination of startlingly vivid sound recorded in April 2001—by Phil Rowlands “assisted by James Walsh”—and a mightily persuasive performance make its 56:02 playing-time seem less than 24 blank minutes at Naxos’ budget price.

I hope you’ll find this disc as multiply rewarding as I have come to.

R.D. (July 2003)