Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!
Reviewed in the United States on 12 April 2013
Aulis Sallinen, born 1935 in Salmi, Finland.
Two quotes spring to mind after listening to the 5 CD set of Aulis Sallinen's Complete Symphonies, Horn, Violin and Cello Concertos as well as sundry other symphonic works:
Hats off, gentlemen, a genius! [though today I'll say "Hats off, ladies and gentlemen, a genius!" on behalf of Schumann so as not to seem sexist]
-- Robert Schumann (in article on Chopin's Op. 2)
What a masterpiece, but what despair! It's enough to make you long for death.
-- Georges Bizet (speaking of Schumann's Manfred);
Let me be clear from the outset: I do not like modern, aka. contemporary, music. Not a bit. I have nothing but contempt for the Boulez-Darmstadt School of Musical Kakaphony, Gubaidulina's sucking up to the academic establishment makes me retch, Golijov's facile nonsense bores me, Glass' minimalist compositions give me the hives and the complexity for complexity's own sake represented by Carter makes me leave the concert hall (if I wasn't aware his "music" was on the program; if I am, I don't bother to go to the concert hall in the first place). Tone clusters, Balinese gongs, imitations of whale sounds, consistent atonality, serialism, minimalism and electronic music are a plague cast upon today's concert halls for which we, at least in part, can thank for the decline of classical music in America and elsewhere.
Therefore, gentle reader, when I write that Aulis Sallinen's symphonic music is simply brilliant and an incredible experience to listen to, I am not speaking from the viewpoint of a teacher of composition in academia who thinks Stockhausen or Babbitt, Maderna, Wuorinen and Reich are the cat's last meow.
Sallinen is to Scandinavian music and the art of composition what Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev are to Russian - and the rest of the world's - music. Sallinen did not suffer from repression which forced him to conform to specific norms like Shostakovich and other Russian composers. The resulting music composed in the USSR inadvertently made communism responsible for its only benefit and gift to the world: Some of the most popular and often-played 20th century music performed in our concert halls today.
I admittedly approached this box set with some trepidation, expecting the usual "Ding-Dong, the Wicked Tonality is Dead" sort of composing which has pervaded among contemporary composers across the world for the last 40-50 years. My surprise at actually liking the first piece astounded me. This wasn't Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Martinu, Bartok or even - God forbid - Messiaen, but I liked it! This feeling only strengthened within me as I went through all 5 CD's in a row.
Sallinen's music is surprisingly tonal and non-serial. One source says that he "writes in a modern, though tonal and not experimental music style." That is not to say he is a neo-romantic. Far be it from that, for he does not eschew harsh dissonances. But Sallinen doesn't write dissonances just for their own sake and because that's the way music is supposed to sound today. He uses them to dramatic effect and as a means of creating tension relative to writing tonal passages, of which he writes plenty. Yet one would never say that his music reminds one of Shostakovich, Bartok, Prokofiev or any other composer. He has his own unique language, the depths and breadth of which are amply represented in the box set.
Take for example his 3rd Symphony. It was written in 1974-75, during the darkest days of the academic composers' regime following its leader, Pierre Boulez. Sallinen stood like a lone island bulwark against the onslaught of the misguided musical dementia of those times, which had occupied much of the musical life in Europe and America, threatening to engulf it all in a 1000 year rule of assonant and serial uniformity and put undesirably non-conformist composers behind the electronic fences of taped and synthesized music. Never was so much owed by so many to one composer who persevered in his embrace harmony and melody. Sallinen's 3rd Symphony was not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end, but it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning wrought upon concert audiences by the appeasement of the "-ists" who, since the 2nd Viennese School, have insidiously spread their serial discord first to Europe, then to the world.
Do not think that the threat Sallinen faced from the "-ists" was not real at the time. Various brainwashed persons have criticized Sallinen's music for being "too crowd-pleasing" and "too tonal." The very notion is preposterous - imagine if critics of the time had written that Handel's operas and oratorios, Vivaldi's violin concerti, Haydn's and Beethoven's symphonies or Verdi's and Wagner's operas were "bad" music because they all composed under the delusion that their music should please audiences! The fact that he was still being performed in the 70's and 80's, receiving prestigious commissions for new compositions, speaks volumes about his talent and the quality of his music.
Other composers who dared to write in a non-experimental style during those dark days faced dismissive derision, as the "-ists" relegated anyone with tonality in their music to languish in cultural ghettos where they were starved of attention and performances. The Finnish composer Einar Englund and Berthold Goldsmidt in Britain actually stopped composing in the 1950's and didn't resume doing so until the 1970's, when the modernist regime started to crumble due to assaults on multiple fronts from audience disenfranchisement, musician disdain and lack of income from royalties from performances of their music and sales of recordings, which relegated them to state funding or employment as professors of composition if they wanted to make a living. In the U.S., there was always the fallback of Hollywood and Broadway, but composers such as Korngold, Schuman and Gould suffered as the prestige they enjoyed before WW II evaporated. They were looked down upon as "mere" movie composers or stylistic dinosaurs and ostracized from concert halls.
We must applaud Sallinen all the more that he didn't fall for Boulez's ideology as expounded in "Die Reihe" or march in lockstep with the Darmstadt party composers who furthered Boulez's ideas about dominating the musical world. Poor Sallinen couldn't even escape across the wall to East Germany and thence to the USSR to get away from the horrors of this regime of contemporary composers, which lasted from the 50's to well into the naughties and still isn't completely extinguished today.
Sallinen's Symphony no. 3 is unabashedly mostly tonal, and infused with its own unique personality, something which Sallinen excels at beyond most composers. To be precise, Sallinen has a unique musical idiom that one becomes more and more familiar with as one listens to this set, but no Sallinen symphonic work sounds like a rehash of previously used material. As his other works, this score has its distinctly individual sonorities and contrasts. The musical progression of this work could be likened to an illustration of the crucifixion of tonality upon the cross of serialism to shouts of atonal disdain. Sallinen uses a distinct motif, which he develops throughout the three movements, surrounding it with varying sonorities. It is one of Sallinen's hallmarks that he always finds new and unexplored paths by using unexpected combinations of sounds from a very large orchestral palette. At the same time, he uses the orchestra from the loudest tuttis that must blow anyone unwisely seated in the 1st row out of their seats to the dynamics of a string quartet. Add to that an element of strong rhythms and percussive effects, harsh dissonances in the brass section and writing for the strings which is particularly rich in its anguished tonal struggle against the dissonances that threaten to engulf their tonal harmonies. There, as briefly put as possible, you have a general synopsis of Sallinen's compositional style.
Finland is a unique country. Finns are used to the company of their own thoughts in a vast landscape with a small population, which is greatly outnumbered by forest critters, where only your own sisu can keep you sane in the endless woods interspersed with lakes. That's on a sunny summer day - one's sisu is sorely stretched in winter, when only lots of alcohol seems to offer relief from a day 3 hours long, deep snow and a temperature of -40 F or C. It is this Finnish trait which makes Sallinen deserve the distinction of being called one of the greatest composers of our times. His music never outstays its welcome. His early works clearly have Sibelius as a departure point, but he is never imitative. One can hear passages that are reminiscent of other composers, but they are either over quotes from famous pieces or undisguised elements of a musical palette which the composer chooses to use. Shostakovich's touch of irony, Stravinskian neo-classicism, Tchaikovsky's orchestrational skills, the fiercely personal and national style of a Janacek or Bartok, the vast symphonic build-ups of Mahler and Bruckner and the daring of Ives are all there in a personal, Suomilainen idiom.
I think I dare promise one thing: If you start listening to one of the works in this CD set, you WILL be riveted to your recliner and finish listening to it. Those who wish to be eased gently from their previous sonic experiences into Sallinen's world should start with his Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (the latter of which, incidentally, became an international best-seller like Gorecki's 3rd Symphony, probably because it was subtitled "The Dreams Of Gandalf" but I don't doubt the buyers enjoyed the music regardless of its subtitle) and "The Palace Rhapsody." Curious listeners can just take it straight from Symphony No. 1.
The orchestras and soloists led by Ari Rasilainen all sound magnificent. The sound quality of this recording deserves more than an honorary mention in this connection. Balancing Sallinen's music in a stereophonic recording is no easy task. The recording technicians at cpo deserve the highest of praise for making each sound combination and instrument group appear clearly in the musical concept of the whole. The overall sound that emerges for the listener is astounding in its clarity, resonance and consistency throughout the entire set in spite of different orchestras and different venues being used.
A Solemn Solemn Overture (King Lear), Op. 75 (1997)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 24 (1971)
Chorali, Op. 22 (1970)
Symphony No. 7, Op. 71, "The Dreams of Gandalf" (1996)
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Ari Rasilainen, dir.
"A Solemn Overture" has a sound sphere which lies somewhere between the dark brooding strings of Sibelius and Mahlerian/Brucknerian use of the brass section. Thoroughly classical sonata form in the first movement. Even though it is a late work, it is perhaps the closest Sallinen gets to his great compatriot predecessor, Sibelius. Yet, interestingly enough, Sallinen denies that he in any way had - or has ever had - Sibelius in mind while composing. Perhaps it is simply cultural sublimation of the great romantic composer which operates in Sallinen's subconsciousness.
Symphony No.1 starts off as if meandering nowhere with two solo violas and percussion. It must be said that dark moods pervade Sallinen's symphonic music, even when Sibelius is in no way a recognizable part of the music. Sallinen's style is to develop seminal note patterns into the broader spectrum of the symphony - a technique which J.S. Bach would have easily recognized. Another salient feature of Sallinen's work are frequent shifts between tonal and atonal passages, though the former predominate. The Symphony is a short one-movement piece lasting less than 15 minutes. It is a powerful work, where the tubular bells, xylophones and snare drums are used particularly effectively. Towards the end, one encounters a motif that tends to recur in Sallinen's symphonies. Repeated notes give one a sense of a ticking clock, with xylophones and tubular bells underscoring the "clock sense" with church bell-like effects. The mood is very close to what we find in the first movement of Shostakovich's Piano Trio, right after the cello's opening theme in harmonics, when the cello and violin start a steady beat of eighth notes above which the piano plays a melody. Rostropovich narrated that Shostakovich told him that a clock was indeed in his mind as he wrote the trio in the darkest days of the Stalinist purges, thinking of a friend of his who had been deported to the Siberian gulag. The recurrence of a similar motif throughout the symphonic works in this set makes one wonder if Sallinen built this motif in as a "tempus fugit" reminder for himself and his listeners.
Choral opens with tone layering reminiscent of the famous chord at the end of the Toccata of Bach's Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 or Prokofiev's equally famous layered chords in "Montagues and Capulets" from Romeo and Juliet. While this process is repeated, wind instruments come in with tonal entries so the whole thing doesn't degenerate into a succession of tone clusters, but goes the other way, gaining in harmony and rhythm, as if the composer is searching his way out of a bleak chaos through the plaintive repeated motif in the oboes. It is a very powerful piece that peaks and bottoms with Mahlerian effect before petering out into silence. This piece reveals Sallinen's predilection for the variation form, which was eventually developed into what the composer himself calls a "mosaic" formal style.
Symphony No. 7 was originally intended as a ballet based on Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. In the score, Sallinen writes: "The Symphony does not actually depict the events in the novel; rather it is a musical expression of the literary atmosphere and poetry." If you combined Shostakovich's drive with the sarcasm in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, you would come up with something that resembles the opening of this symphony. In this piece, Sallinen's idiom is predominantly tonal, quite lushly so at times, though more episodic and with longer recognizable themes, which are derived from its original conception as a ballet. There are certainly passages played by the bassoons that remind us of Grieg's "I dovregubbens Hal" from Peer Gynt, which no doubt will make the Mines of Moria come to the listener's mind. Sallinen knows how to portray the dwarves perfectly - and with much more musical genius than that displayed by Howard Shore, who wrote the music for the Tolkien movie trilogy. I won't try to put descriptions of which themes I think represent what in Tolkien's books, since Sallinen specifically distances himself from that and because Hanslick would kill me for trying to turn abstraction into meaning. Interestingly though, the symphony contains passages that are rather close to the opening line of the Christmas Carol "Good King Wenceslas" where the words "The Good King Stephen" occur. It is difficult not to think of "The Return of the King" at that point in the Symphony. Incidentally, a little known fact is that the lyrics for "Good King Wenceslas," whic only date back to 1853, were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering") first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones. Did Sallinen intend this reference or was it mere coincidence...?
Symphony no.4, Op.49 (1979)
- Andante Poco Giocoso
- Dona Nobis Pacem
Symphony no.2, Op. 29 "Symphonic Dialogue" (1972)
Horn Concerto Op. 82 "Bells And Arias" (2002)
Part I "Bells"
Part II "Arias"
Mauermusik Op.7 (1963)
Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra; Ari Rasilainen, dir., Esa Tapani, Horn, Martin Orraryd, Percussion
Symphony No. 2 is a one-movement symphony lasting around 15 minutes, just like Symphony No. 1. In this work, the listener becomes much more aware of how much Sallinen exhibits a unique interest in innovative sound combinations as an element in his oeuvre. The Symphony starts with a descending scale repeated again and again while it becomes surrounded by garlands of various orchestral groupings. In what could be called the second part of the the Symphony's structure, Sallinen reverses the scales while increasing the music's intensity. First the percussion with anvils, then bells and xylophones, then Brass, etc., etc., etc. (to quote from "The King and I"). You have to listen to the combinations of sound - describing them in writing is as useless and impossible as describing the effect of the stained glass windows in Chartres cathedral. The reason why this piece is subtitled "Symphonic Dialogue" quickly becomes clear, as a percussion soloist enters on the snare drum in a prominent role, followed by the soloists shifting to many more types of drums, woodblocks, marimba, vibraphone, crotales and numerous other percussion instruments played by the soloists. Sallinen engages the percussion soloist in a dialogue with the orchestra to full effect throughout the piece. Sallinen describes his intention as "achieving variety in homogeneity." This Symphony illustrates one way in which Sallinen differs from Shostakovich: Shostakovich liked to repeat his themes and, while being brilliant at it, basically using the same instrumentational approach over an extended career. But for some basic traits - like the "ticking clock and bells" motif - Sallinen tends to take a new approach to the orchestra with each symphonic work that we encounter. The composer does show some acerbic wit a la Shostakovich by introducing a short spell of caricatured waltz music, which leads into a beautiful and delicate sequence which Prokofiev would have been proud of writing, constituting, if you will, a slow middle section. Military bugle signals herald the third section, played by muted trumpets, then without mutes and with a cadenza for the percussionist where the drums sound like shell-fire in the distance. If we didn't know the piece was written in 1972, one would say this music was written in a time of peril. But of course the Cold War was a time of peril, and few other countries in Europe felt it as keenly as Finland, sharing a 600 mile border with the USSR and enjoying neutrality enforced by ditto with more than a little unease among its population.
The 4th Symphony is in three movements. The first movement, as its title tells, is a lighter affair (to the extent possible in Sallinen's music) and reminds one somewhat of Stravinsky's neo-classical style getting bashed by the brutality of "Le Sacre du printemps." The movement contains plenty of irony, while retaining the shifts in texture, dynamics and harmonies that are a salient feature of the composer's music.
The "Dona nobis pacem" movement lives up to its title. Gone are all the violent and percussive traits of Sallinen's music. Instead we are treated to strings and woodwinds alternating and picking up melodic elements from each other. There are some ominous march-like tones and drumbeats in the underlying texture of the music, but overall the feeling is one of desolation. In this movement, Sallinen uses the strings in particular to good effect in combination with tubular bells.
The quiet string ending of the 2nd movement slides attacca over into the 3rd movement, which picks up the mood of the 2nd movement. A repeating ostinato pattern is used as a cohesive force in this movement, which increases in volume as it switches between strings and brass, and later as a giocoso underlay for a piccolo solo. The ostinato makes its way through almost all the strings, woodwinds and bell-percussion instrument until it is interrupted twice towards the end with chorale-like passages in the winds. While the chorales seem to be the climax of the last movement, they music ends with quirky repeats of the ostinato in the violas, cellos and celesta and harp, which leave the listener feeling as if the work ended with a question mark.
The Horn Concerto's subtitle is a pun on an annotation that horn players sometimes find in their parts: "Campana in aria," literally "Bell in the Air," Sallinen writes about this piece: "Campane ed arie refers to the essence of the concerto: both bell-like and melodic soundscapes exist in this work. For me, the French horn is a melodic instrument." The Concerto starts with rich harmonies in the strings, but even in post-Cold War Sallinen, the feeling of apprehension is never too far away. Being a concerto for a brass instrument, the orchestral score omits the use of other brass instruments. The woodwinds sound fanfares and the horn solo sounds an invitation to a hunt. The solo horn part is well-written. Used sparingly at first, as if sticking its head above the orchestra, it becomes dominant in the middle of the movement with passages of such virtuosity that it seems the orchestra is dumbstruck. Sallinen plays with not only the horn's natural propensity for arpeggios and a rich melodic sound, but introduces unusual elements of sound which I, not being a horn player, cannot give an accurate name to. Suffice it to say it ain't a sound like in Mozart's 4 concerti for horn. The second movement is reminiscent of a tango with a bit of 30's Weill thrown in. Those who know Finland will not be surprised at the composer's use of tango-like elements, since dancing the tango is the most popular social pastime in Finland (except perhaps for the sauna). It is a very witty and quite subdued movement which exploits the horn's cantabile qualities. The ending is exuberant and provides a witty end to an entertaining concerto. Definitely a piece for solo horn that I'd like to hear on stage on the VERY odd occasion that a horn concerto is ever programmed. It is far better than anything Mozart or Strauss ever wrote for the instrument.
Mauermusik was Sallinen's international break-through piece. The title refers to an instance when an East German trying to flee to West Germany was shot by an East German border guard and lay dying in no man's land without anyone coming to his succour. The piece is subtitled "To the Memory of a Young German." Albeit an elegy, Mauermusik is surprisingly atonal in comparison with the other works heard so far and were it not for the seriousness of its subject matter, it would seem that the composer is trying his hand at a school assignment which reads: "Describe what you did this summer (using atonal music)." As a good student, Sallinen made sure to include lots of Schonberg, Berg, and Webern in the opening. No doubt it would have fooled his teacher into complacency so s/he wouldn't notice Sallinen lapsing into moments of tonality and touches that herald his symphonic music of the future, when he abandoned serialism and atonality. What starts out abrasively becomes surprisingly more and more harmonic and peaceful as the piece proceeds into what feels like the still onset of death.
Symphony No. 3, Op. 35 (1974-75)
- Tempo Energico Ed Sostenuto
- Vivace Giocoso - Finale
Symphony No. 5, "Washington Mosaics", Op. 57 (1984-85)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Ari Rasilainen, dir.
Symphony No. 3 was written 1974-75, as mentioned earlier during the darkest days of the Boulezian-academic dictatorship. It is in 3 movements, a format which did not come easily to Sallinen. In his comments to the work he writes: "Symphonic thinking as I understand it lies above all in the structure of one movement, not so much in a multi movement structure, meaning the interaction of multiple movements. Taking this together with my constant desire to condense things, it is scarcely surprising that my first two symphonies were both cast in a single movement. [...it was not until later that I realized] I was looking at a situation in which the notional single movement would actually be a multi-movement structure where the movements were linked together." The symphony had, in fact, a long gestation, and after writing the last movement, Sallinen decided to completely rewrite the entire Chaconne. This score again has its distinctly own sonorities and contrasts. It is the most tonal symphony that Sallinen had written so far, and seems to - as if - illustrate the crucifixion of tonality upon the cross of serialism to shouts of atonal disdain. Sallinen uses a distinct motif, which he develops throughout the three movements, surrounding it with varying sonorities, as is his wont. The strong percussive element is present, as are the dissonances in the brass instruments, but the writing for the strings is particularly rich in its anguished struggle against the dissonances that threaten to engulf them. In this symphony, Sallinen comes the closest to using quasi-minimalist repetition while developing his style of using families of instruments to create contrasting blocks of sound.
The 5th Symphony is in 5 movements subtitled "Washington Mosaics" as it was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C., then conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. It opens vehemently with whiplashes of sound emanating from the orchestra. The first movement could well have been subtitled "Sacher-Masoch Monument" since after being lashed with sounds, the audience is taunted by a vast richness of alternating dynamics, tempi, instruments and even a brief stylistic move into the realm of jazz and waltz in a Bartok-like mockery of conventions. The irony of such moments when Sallinen toys with familiar material is that it is only present for the briefest of moments. Just as you want to settle in complacently and enjoy the swinging rhythms and dance-like melodies, they are gone and you stand before an abyss of something completely unfamiliar and - as usual with Sallinen - a feeling of apprehension of what is to come. Light or darkness, consonance or dissonance, piano or fortissimo...?
The first movement, at 12 minutes, is almost as long as some of Sallinen's entire symphonies, so this work illustrates how Sallinen handles the extended symphonic form and captivates the audience for about 40 minutes. In this Symphony, Sallinen specifically referred to creating a "sound mosaic." As he explains, the term "mosaic" does not imply a cutting into pieces but rather the gradual combination of ideas into a larger whole, yet transferring the mosaic elements from one movement to another so they may be combined in a kaleidoscopic effect. The second movement is dirge-like, with various woodwind instruments playing quasi-recitando phrases that seem to try to say something, but which the listener obviously cannot understand in literal terms. The third movement seems to sink even deeper into despair. The orchestra plays quietly and then a trumpet plays a taps-like melody that overarches the orchestral sound. This movement brought Ives' "Three Places in New England" to my mind as the feeling of desolation in this symphony and the slow sections of Ives' music give one a feeling of being amidst a wintery fog. The music in this movement - apart from the trumpet solo - stands completely still.
The third movement begins with some intensely romantic-style writing for the strings. It is as if the orchestra struggles with great effort to awaken after the bleak nothingness of the 3rd movement. Up to this point in his development as a composer, one can say much about Sallinen's symphonic music, but it is hardly ever light or cheerful. Nonetheless, this movement brings relief to the listener, for it is quite tonal and beautiful in spite of its brooding tone. It is scored and sounds close to the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th Symphony, with the added tension that the composer seems aware not only of his impending death, but his damnation beyond that, too.
The last movement starts fortissimo with an open octave in the orchestra's lowest registers with drums and percussion playing a variety of rhythms. It is a very dynamic movement, so much more since it is in such contrast to the two preceding movements. The strings play fast and loud unisono passages while the flutes fly arpeggios and scales above them. Some reminiscences from the previous movements are heard as well. The music enters into triumphant brass fanfares towards the end before being cut off by sostenuto notes held by the strings in a moment without rhythm before the percussion and winds give the audience a final Dies irae vision to conclude this grand piece. In this Symphony, as if the musical ambassador for his country, Sallinen consciously tilts his hat to Sibelius by quoting snippets of passages from that composer's 1st Symphony and other pieces.
I am not one to easily sit through 40 minutes of non-stop symphonic music without squirming unless the orchestra plays absolutely magnificently and/or the music is captivating. In Sallinen's 5th symphony, it is the "and" that made me sit and listen without even as much as a thought of a potty break. Yes, Sallinen can handle the extended symphonic form - brilliantly.
(Continued in "Comments")
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