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10 full-fledged concertos, one important tone poem masquerading as one, and one spare piece for harp and orchestra are loaded into a convenient set that comprises the complete concertos to date by this superb Finnish composer-- an excellent introduction to his music. The works, in generally excellent performances, were written from 1968 to 2001, revealing a career filled with consistent musicality and courage--a model of what could have happened if there were more composers of Rautavaara's taste and good sense after the war.
Earliest in the set is the Cello Concerto (1968), a generally pretty piece not especially typical of its time. It's a little tentative, but one may still get a sense of the basic musical values to come. Rautavaara was a mature composer by this time (he was 40).
The three piano concertos appeared in performances with Laura Mikkola on two recent Naxos releases. The hyper-romantic Concerto 1 (1969) is uncharacteristically bombastic, even with the lovely second movement chorale. The finale is cartoonish. I wonder how much of this work is tongue-in-cheek in response to what else was going on stylistically at the time. I have not heard the Naxos (554147).
This recording of the gorgeous Cantus Arcticus (1972), a "Concerto for Birds and Orchestra", is its fourth. I reviewed it in March/April 2006; it is coupled there with the Clarinet Concerto. Of course, this is really not a concerto (more a tone poem) but it is one of the greatest scores of that musically troubled time period and one of this composer's best pieces. The complementary Ballad for Harp and Strings (1973/1981) pits the Vaughan Williams-y language of the Cantus against discombobulated dissonance and self-conscious sound effects more typical of its time. Too bad.
The Flute Concerto, Dances with the Winds (1975), is an impressive piece of work and one of the better contributions to this flooded genre produced in that period. I was enthusiastic about it in 1999 (S/O) and remain so. I'm surprised there aren't more recordings of it yet, though it will be hard to top this fine one.
The Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet, and Symphonic Wind Orchestra (Annunciations, 1977) is an extended work of Ligetiesque avant-gardism mixed with Carnival of Souls organ surrealism, disembodied chorales, momentous brass fanfares, explosive noise, thoughtful mysticism, nervous gesture, Gothic fearfulness, and lots of aimless meandering uncharacteristic of this composer. It was obviously an experiment, and it must have extramusical meaning of some kind, but it functions poorly as pure music.
The Violin Concerto (1977) comes from the same year, but you would never know it. Mostly romantic, filled with traditional cadenzas, songful lyricism, and passionate virtuosity, the interestingly structured piece for the most part steers away from "progressivism" and positions itself as a repertoire candidate. Elmar Oliveira plays it with conviction.
The Double Bass Concerto, Angel of Dusk (1980), is one of this composer's genuine duds. In three movements--the middle one is a 9- minute cadenza--the writing seems tentative and unconvincing. This was originally recorded by BIS, whose typically distant engineering does no favors to this difficult if not impossible combination.
As for the other Piano Concertos, 2 (1989) and 3 (1999) were recently issued on a Naxos release (M/A 2004). 2, a dark, expressionist work, approaches greatness in certain places, particularly the closing section of the second movement and the remarkable opening of the first. Both Ondine and Naxos performances are outstanding, with perhaps a very slight edge going to Naxos for the overwhelming close of the last movement or some slightly more polished detail in certain places. 3, Gift of Dreams (1998), written for Ashkenazy to perform while conducting, is an unusually beautiful three-movement work leading off with two poignant nocturnes. Ashkenazy plays it on this set. Ms Mikkola plays it beautifully on Naxos, but seems a little overwhelmed in the more turbulent passages in the finale.
I was a little rough on the Harp Concerto (2000) in my original review (M/A 2002), objecting primarily to some of the unnecessary "effects" and dirty harmony in the opening movement and the shameless ending of the last; but I hear it as a magnificent work that can just use a little editing. Even without it, it's worth hearing. The latest work in this collection is the sensual Clarinet Concerto (2001) (M/A 2006), written for Richard Stoltzman, who plays it here. I don't care for Stoltzman's pinched, vibrato-laden sound; but it's a beautiful piece sure to enter the standard clarinet repertoire. I look forward to a competing recording, but if you haven't heard it yet don't miss this one.
All told, this is an important and useful release. -- American Record Guide, Allen Gimbel, January/February 2010
Finland's enterprising Ondine label has faithfully recorded the music of the eminent composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928 in Helsinki) for decades and has assembled from their extensive catalogue of his works this immensely valuable collectors' edition of four discs documenting a dozen concertos composed by him over the past 30 years. All of the recordings were supervised by the composer and feature outstanding soloists accompanied in most cases by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the redoubtable Leif Segerstam. Rautavaara's extant series of concertos (though a recent percussion concerto has yet to be recorded) begins with the 1968 Cello Concerto, heard here in a performance by Marko Ylönen, and extends to the lengthy 2001 Clarinet Concerto in a masterful performance by its dedicatee Richard Stoltzman. My personal favourites include the stunningly evocative 1972 Concerto for Birds and Orchestra "Cantus Arcticus", which amalgamates the composer's own field recordings of the waterfowl of northern Finland in a halo of shimmering orchestral sound, and two compositions from 1977, the kaleidoscopic scoring and stream-of-consciousness impunity of the single movement Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet and Symphonic Winds with Kari Jussila the soloist and Elmar Oliveira's affectionate account of the capricious mood swings of the Violin Concerto. The collection also includes a lively Flute Concerto with Patrick Gallois, a succinct Ballad and prolix Concerto for harp, and an uncanny Concerto for Double Bass. Rautavaara's three Piano Concertos, the first two performed by Ralf Gothoni with the Leipzig and Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestras and the third performed and conducted from the keyboard by Vladimir Ashkenazy in Helsinki, provide an excellent overview of the composer's stylistic evolution over the decades. Considered by many as one of the greatest musical figures in Finland after Jean Sibelius, Rautavaara's compositions are infused by a rich palette of expression that consistently reward the listener while remaining admirably contemporary in their approach. All the selections feature excellent production values and constitute a loving tribute to this important composer's considerable achievements. -- WholeNote, Daniel Foley, September 30, 2009
Okay, the Ballade for Harp and String Orchestra technically isn't a concerto, but who's counting? Rautavaara's concertos are arguably more consistent and representative than his symphonies. The First Piano Concerto, the earliest work here, exudes the sort of spiky Finno-Russian neoclassicism that we find in Englund and Shostakovich, but from the Second Piano Concerto on Rautavaara is very much his own man, and every one of these pieces, even the relatively gnarly concertos for organ and double bass, are well worth getting to know. Several strike me as flat-out masterpieces, including the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Violin Concerto, the Harp Concerto, and of course Cantus Arcticus for taped birds and orchestra. Furthermore, the performances are all first rate, from Ralf Gothóni and Vladimir Ashkenazy in the piano concertos, to Elmar Oliveira, Richard Stolzman, and Patrick Gallois in the concertos for violin, clarinet, and flute, respectively. The orchestral accompaniments leave nothing to be desired either, and the engineering is uniformly excellent. All of these works have appeared previously in Ondine's Rautavaara edition where many have been reviewed in detail at CT.com, but coupling them this way makes an ideal introduction to the composer and his special sound world. I just hope this set, which inevitably has a retrospective feel to it, doesn't mean that Rautavaara will not continue to produce symphonic works and concertos despite the ill-health he has suffered recently. By all means, indulge! [9/14/2009] -- ClassicsToday.com, David Hurwitz, September 14, 2009
Performance: 4 stars Sound: 4.5 stars
This four-disc Ondine set collects the complete concertos of Einojuhani Rautavaara. While these 12 works may not make the best argument for the Finnish post-modernist's status as a great composer -- his eight symphonies surely make good that claim -- they certainly make the best argument for his status as an amazingly effective, astoundingly diverse, and wonderfully individualistic composer. The works themselves are all from Rautavaara's wide-ranging maturity. There are three piano concertos, one concerto each for violin, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, organ, and harp, as well as a Ballad for harp and orchestra, plus the sui generic "Cantus Arcticus" for taped Artic bird songs and orchestra. Though the majority of the works are in three movements, each is unlike any other in conception and execution. From the megalomaniacal Piano Concerto No. 1 through the atmospheric Flute Concerto "Dances of the Winds" to the luminous Bass Concerto "Angel of Dusk," Rautavaara never repeats himself. Each work is superbly composed for its chosen soloist; the nearly Romantic Piano Concerto No. 3, "Gift of Dreams," written for Vladimir Ashkenazy, is a prime example. The soloists are always technically impressive, particularly Patrick Gallois' virtuosity on four separate flutes. They are also often emotionally compelling, especially Elmar Oliveira's seamless legato in the Tranquillo that opens the Violin Concerto. Recorded in cool, clear, deep, and very vivid digital sound, this set deserves to be heard by fans of the best of post-modernism. -- Allmusic.com, James Leonard, September 2009
Rating: 4 stars
Like the German composer Paul Hindemith, Finish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara loves composing concertos with diverse instruments. You get to hear them all in this stimulating collection, one that proves that in the field of composition, he can do just about anything--even be bad. This is the only collection of his concertos and it is splendidly performed. Try some of the unusual ones first. His Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet and Symphonic Wind Orchestra, early in the score, bursts the pious mode that's chained organ music for past five centuries. Like an impish child, it peeks around corners and startles with its concoctions: a warbly instrument (an Ondes Martenot? A theremin?), brash percussion, inventive string accompaniment. His Concerto for Birds and Orchestra ("Cantus Articus") is his strangest, although composers have incorporated animal sounds before in their works. (Alan Hovhaness loved his whales.) But this piece really does conjure up a sense of place: With its pre-recorded bird sounds and hypnotic strings, it suggests a trip to the shivery arctic tundra.
The Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra ("Angel of Dusk") is a knotty, dense work with Esko Laine on the double bass. His cadenza in the middle of the work astounds. There are three piano concertos, two as bright and daring as Bartok's; the third--alas--disappointing. It's probably not all Rautavaara's fault. He composed this last one for pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who also wanted to conduct as he played. Bad decision. The themes are trite and unadventurous, the musical ideas few, and the mood veers frequently into mawkish land. No matter, the other concertos are worth listening to many times over. The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra and the one for Clarinet and Orchestra are spunky works, particularly with Patrick Gallois and Richard Stoltzman performing. Listen to the short and sweet Vivace in the Concerto for Flute and you may not be able to turn off the rest of the work. And there is the Concerto for Violin and with its ghostly romantic opening, the Shostakovichian Cello Concerto (particularly that feisty Vivace), and the unorthodox Concerto for Harp and Orchestra. How can you go wrong? -- Audiophile Audition, Peter Bates, September 14, 2009
The expression worn by the handsome Finnish composer in his cover photograph, taken in 1948, seems quite in keeping with his provocative statement that his concertos symbolize the dramatic conflict between the individual (the soloist) and the collective (the orchestra). Though different, these works, written over four decades and featured on a four-CD set, share several traits: the juxtaposition of opposites; the violent contrasts between dynamics, textures, colors, and moods; the colorful orchestration; and the tendency to stretch the soloists' technical and tonal resources. In the violin, cello, and bass concertos, the solo parts go into the highest stratosphere and require the players to produce double-stops, chords, jumps, high-speed runs, and every imaginable sound effect. The performances by three consummate string virtuosos are quite breathtaking, as is that of the Clarinet Concerto, played here by its dedicatee, Richard Stoltzman.
The three Piano Concertos are full of tone clusters, instrumental fireworks, and effects. Rautavaara (b. 1928) wrote the first one for himself in 1969, the second 20 years later for his great compatriot Ralf Gothóni, who gives a stunning performance of both, and the third for Vladimir Ashkenazy, who also conducts. -- All Things Strings, Edith Eisler, November 2009
The four CDs in Rautavaara: Concertos, from Ondine, will expand your love for the 81-year-old Finnish composer's oeuvre far beyond his wondrous, best-selling "Cantus Arcticus" Concerto for Birds and Orchestra. Three concertos for piano and orchestra (played by dedicatees Ralf Gothóni and Vladimir Ashkenazy) join others on violin, cello, double bass, harp, flute, and clarinet (with its dedicatee, Richard Stoltzman). There's also a concerto for the unusual combination of organ, brass quintet, and symphonic wind orchestra, plus a Ballad for Harp and Strings. -- San Francisco Classical Voice, Jason Victor Serinus, November 30, 2009