Gerald Finley, Mika Pohjonen, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Helsinki Music Centre Choir, John Storgards.
Einojuhani Rautavaara, Finland’s leading composer, died in July. This new disc from the Ondine label, which has produced more than 40 recordings of Rautavaara’s music, contains some of his final works. If the death of Pierre Boulez earlier this year signaled the end of serialism’s attempted stranglehold on composition, Rautavaara had already found one way around that dogmatic dead end. Having experimented with the 12-tone technique and other modernist approaches, he changed direction after his fourth symphony (“Arabescata”) and, more convincingly than some other more purely neo-Romantic composers (Pärt, Tavener, Górecki), sought a mixture of tonal harmony and melodic dissonance.
The oldest piece on this release is four choral excerpts from Rautavaara’s last opera, “Rasputin.” They are some of the best parts of that unwieldy and fascinating work, premiered in Helsinki in 2003. In particular, the last of them, “Loista, Siion, Loista!” (“Shine, Zion, shine!”), is a riotous orgy of sound, with litany-like repetitions and apocalyptic clatter of percussion. “Into the Heart of Light” (Canto V), premiered in 2012, was the last of Rautavaara’s Canto string orchestra pieces, a series of compositional self-portraits he had been creating since the 1960s. While Canto V opens in lush tonal harmony, the frequency of dissonance is heightened, until in the last four minutes, the violins soar together in an arching series of chromatic clusters. Clashing minor seconds suggest the intensity of bright light.
John Storgards leads loving, informed performances by the Helsinki Philharmonic and Helsinki Music Center Choir. In “Balada,” premiered in 2015, Rautavaara set surrealist Spanish poetry by Federico García Lorca, somewhat awkwardly and monotonously, in a work — sung here by tenor Mika Pohjonen — that was originally conceived as an opera but that perhaps should have been left in Rautavaara’s desk drawer.
The baritone Gerald Finley and London’s Wigmore Hall played a crucial role in Rautavaara’s completion of a long-planned song cycle on the hedonistic verse of medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Finley premiered the version for piano in 2014, using the rhymed English translation by Edward FitzGerald, “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” and he is the skilled soloist here in the orchestral version. Instrumental interludes flow from the ends of the first four songs, as if, in the composer’s words, “this music did not want to stop and simply should flow onward,” like the wine that yields miracles.
Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln.
The German composer Hans Werner Henze was a brilliant orchestral colorist. The best parts of his late opera “L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe” (“Upupa and the Triumph of Filial Love”), for example, were the intricate, gorgeous combinations of wind instruments, delicate tinkling percussion, and recorded sounds of bird wings and birdsongs. The German conductor Markus Stenz, now the principal guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who conducted the world premiere of “L’Upupa” at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 2003, has recorded two collections of Henze’s orchestral music with his former group, the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, the second released this summer.
The new disc centers on Henze’s seventh symphony, composed from 1983 to 1984. Henze conceived the work’s four movements in homage to the traditional Germanic symphony. The first movement, “Tanz,” is rhythmically effervescent. Masses of chaotic dissonance rise up here and in the otherwise lush “mourning ode” movement that follows. Henze connected the symphony to the life of Friedrich Hölderlin, a poet who had a mental breakdown in Tübingen, living his last 36 years in a tower room overlooking the Neckar river. The finale, an instrumental rendition of Hölderlin’s poem “Hälfte des Lebens” (“Half of Life”), is the best part of this often too-cacophonous symphony; here, Henze’s orchestration is at its most colorful, somehow sheltered from total chaos. Stenz delivers one of the fastest recordings of this work on record.
Henze was even more effective in smaller orchestral pieces. The “Seven Boleros” are short, evocative pieces for a large orchestra, originally written for Henze’s opera “Venus and Adonis.” Fandango and other Latin rhythms enliven the texture. Fun saxophone solos are complemented by traces of castanets and snare drum. Any conductor thinking of programming Ravel’s “Boléro” should instead put this in its place, while still calling the program “Boleros” to get people to buy tickets.
Two miniatures round out the selection. “L’Heure Bleue,” a chamber arrangement of music from “L’Upupa,” is a musical tribute to the infinite changing shades of blue at dusk on the Mediterranean coast, as Henze saw it from his home in Italy. “Overture for a Theater” was commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin to mark its 100th anniversary, in 2012; it’s a barnburner that ends with an apocalyptic clamor. It turned out to be the last piece Henze completed; he died only a few days after he attended the performance.