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Einojuhani Rautavaara Before the Icons / A Tapestry of Life Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Finland’s pre-eminent living composer is still creating music of scintillating beauty.

Andrew Mellor 2010

Aged 81, Finland’s pre-eminent living composer is still creating music of scintillating beauty, originality and spiritual strength. But he’s also finding time for some rather less fruitful projects too, which a sizeable portion of this disc frustratingly reveals.

Rautavaara had long earmarked his 1955 piano work Byzantine Icons for orchestration. It had, in the end, to wait half a century for the privilege: in 2005 the composer completed his orchestral version of the six icons, adding four newly-composed ‘prayers’ and a final Amen.

The original 1955 music shows just how far Rautavaara’s voice has evolved since. The harmonic language only occasionally hints at the rich palette the composer regularly conjures today and the music frequently meanders in obvious neo-modal directions.

That’s all entirely understandable. Rautavaara’s champion Jean Sibelius still had two years to live in 1955, and the composer himself was only three years shy of 30. Moreover, the pieces are intended as responses to the sincerity and stillness of prayer. The trouble is that they have far more inherent spirituality when played on the piano as originally intended.

The close-clustered chords in Black Madonna of Blakernaya, for example, resonate on the piano with piercing bell-like sonorities. On plaintive winds and mezzo-forte strings, they don’t. The four additions – including the compellingly purposeful Amen – only serve to highlight the fact that orchestral clothing has weakened Rautavaara’s original concept, and that his music of 50 years ago is largely less sure of itself. 

But hold on – don’t go running for the hills just yet. A Tapestry of Life is a more representative slice of Rautavaara dating from 2007. Next to Before the Icons, it’s a joy. Across the four text-inspired movements you get brilliantly inventive but idiosyncratic orchestrations; themes that are ripe for development and stamped through with Rautavaarian yearning; harmonies full of narrative tension and detailed orchestral textures that reward further with multiple listens.

Throughout, the Helsinki Philharmonic’s edgy, no-nonsense sound is thrilling under conductor Leif Segerstam. But for the same personnel playing a full disc’s worth of consistently brilliant Rautavaara, go for Ondine’s recent recording of the Manhattan Trilogy and Symphony No.3.

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