Bookends from Rautavaara’s Compositional Career

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Rautavaara’s late works continue to reveal the hand of a master with a completely assured technique and a serenely confident personal style. Towards the Horizon, his Cello Concerto No. 2, is an introspective, poetic work cast in large-scale variation form. Like so many modern concertos, its quiet ending may limit its chances of becoming popular in concert, but the quality of the music is never in doubt and the melodic material is truly memorable. Rautavaara’s Percussion Concerto, subtitled “Incantations,” opens with an arresting chorale that returns both at the end of the first movement (sound sample below), and in the work’s final pages. I have often said that percussion concertos, conceptually speaking, are almost impossible to write because of the inherent limitations of the solo instrument(s), especially if (as here) the composer’s style is essentially tonal and melodic. To his credit, Rautavaara apportions the majority of the solo writing to vibraphone and marimba, with contrasting episodes given to untuned percussion. The result, effectively varied timbrally, works very well; even the concluding cadenza fits logically into its place in the finale, and does not outstay its welcome. Time will tell if “the percussion concerto problem,” if you accept that there is one, has been solved definitively. Either way, this is a very enjoyable listen.

Modificata belongs to Rautavaara’s early, twelve-tone period (the late 1950s) and while it’s understandable that he takes pride in some of these early pieces, there is no point in pretending that they are as characterful or successful as his later works. Even here, though, Rautavaara fashions distinctive melodic material for each of the piece’s three movements–the quick finale is particularly exciting and successful. The first movement seems to owe a little something to the first of Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, but especially in this context, it would be difficult to make the case for this music being as expressive and interesting as the two concertos. Still, it’s good to have this audible measure of the distance that Rautavaara has travelled over the course of his career. As with all the releases in Ondine’s ongoing series dedicated to this composer, the performances are excellent. Both concertos are performed by their dedicatees, while the Helsinki Philharmonic under John Storgards does its usual fine job. So, for that matter, do Ondine’s engineers. Very recommendable.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: No reference recording

EINOJUHANI RAUTAVAARA: Cello Concerto No. 2; Modificata; Percussion Concerto


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