I had the pleasure of witnessing the New York premiere of the Eighth Symphony, a work that despite much that is lovely, struck me as a bit short-winded in the slow movement and texturally undifferentiated in the finale. Hearing this new recording convinces me that this impression stemmed largely from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s monochromatic interpretation. In Leif Segerstam’s hands the piece now has the necessary range of contrast: he shapes the soaring lyrical lines of the first movement into large, coherent paragraphs (listen to how effortlessly the climax about eight minutes into the first movement blossoms forth), then blasts through the scherzo with virtuosic abandon, lets the gorgeous yet brief slow movement really breathe, and finds more coloristic variety in the grandly imposing finale than the live performance ever suggested. Subtitled “The Journey”, the work does indeed move purposefully from the mysterious murmuring of its opening to its triumphant conclusion, and makes a worthy successor to the already famous “Angel of Light” Seventh Symphony.
The Harp Concerto is, in its way, even more extraordinary. Good music for the harp doesn’t exactly grow on trees, and it would be small compliment to say that of all concertos for harp and orchestra, this one is the finest (Ginastera’s notwithstanding). Still, I can’t imagine anyone listening to this lovely, atmospheric work and not coming to that conclusion after the first two minutes. To write a substantial piece that positively revels in the unique sonic capabilities of the solo instrument, and that never sounds cheap or merely a collection of “special effects”, requires an unusual mastery of compositional technique and a rare concentration of purpose. Not the least of the concerto’s attractions is the presence of two harps in the orchestra as well, which support the soloist in tutti passages and provide for a thrilling wash of sound at climaxes. The darkly uncompromising ending, with its tolling bells, harp glissandos, and timpani strokes, places the concerto squarely in the line of Rautavaara’s major works and demonstrates conclusively that the purely technical challenges of composition in no way preclude emotional depth or expressive urgency. The performance here makes the strongest possible case for this masterpiece, which deserves the widest possible circulation in concert.
Ondine’s Rautavaara series has revealed to music lovers one marvelous work after another, and with each new release Rautavaara’s stature as one of the greatest composers working today only increases. It’s hard to think of another figure whose every new piece so rewards the attentive listener while at the same time uncompromisingly proclaims the author’s unique musical voice. If you haven’t had the chance to get to know the music of this exceptional creative spirit, the present release, magnificently performed and recorded, offers an ideal place to start. [12/5/2001]