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Paavali Jumppanen: One of Finland's finest exports

Features - Classical Music

Paavali Jumppanen: One of Finland's finest exports

by Clive Paget on March 21, 2017 (March 21, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
The Finnish pianist's eighth Aussie tour sees him mixing Debussy and Sibelius with his old 'Appassionata' for Beethoven.

In the world of classical music, there’s nothing quite so subject to hype as pianists and pianism, but with fresh-faced young Turks seeming to bound onto the stage every month, it’s good to know that among all the flash and clatter there is still room for something more considered. And one of the more interesting ‘somethings’ is Paavali Jumppanen, one of life’s more thoughtful musicians, whose artistic balancing act finds him equally at home with Boulez as he is with Beethoven.

Paavali Jumppanen. Photo © Colin Samuels

In fact, the 42-year-old Finn’s recording of the three Boulez piano sonatas has become a bit of a benchmark in the 12 years since it came out on DG as part of the composer’s 80th birthday celebrations, and now it seems his immaculately produced Beethoven cycle on the Ondine label is drawing similar plaudits, not least in the pages of Limelight.

Jumppanen has been playing Beethoven for many years now, and chatting with him over the phone from the US, where he’s currently engaged on a concert tour, he admits to a special connection. “There is something extremely powerful for me in the sort of grand gesture that Beethoven’s music always presents,” he tells me. “I had a very close relationship with Beethoven's music growing up as a child, and I remember these sonatas being inspirations when I was in my teens, but it was really playing the cycle, reading about the music and writing programme notes that opened up this world to me. For me, there's a feeling of homecoming whenever I get to play Beethoven.

Australian audiences will get to experience Jumppanen having just that feeling in March and April as he plays the mighty Appassionata as part of his tour to four states, offering a typically eclectic programme that also features Debussy, Sibelius and Tristan Murail. “Actually, I'm just looking at it myself and you're right, it's four very different composers, but I know there is a coherence there,” he jokes.

“Having just finished releasing the Beethoven CDs, it felt like this was the time to celebrate by playing some Beethoven. And because I recorded the Debussy Préludes at the end of last year I thought it would be nice to play some of the second book. This is the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence and I want to make a point by playing a big Finnish piece. Sibelius’s Kyllikki, although it's not terribly long, is his major piano work. And then there’s this little Murail piece… Tristan Murail is a great composer of our time, a very colourful composer and a student of Pierre Boulez, whose music I play a lot. Murail happens to turn 70 this year, so I thought this is always a good way to smuggle in something new. It looks like a bit of a mosaic, but I'm confident that it will work well.”

One of music’s quiet achievers, Jumppanen was born in Espoo, half an hour’s drive from Helsinki, in 1974 and began piano lessons at the age of five. Like so many leading Finnish musicians on today’s classical music scene, he’s a graduate of the Sibelius Academy from where he went on to study with Krystian Zimerman at the Basel Music Academy for four years. His wide-ranging repertoire embraces the great staples (composers such as Bach and Beethoven) as well as 20th-century giants – he’s a noted exponent of Messiaen’s epic Vingt Regards Sur l’Enfant Jésus. Besides the Boulez, his ‘modern’ discography includes contemporary Finnish composers like Rautavaara and Jaakko Kuusisto.

Surveying his Australian recital set, one thing that does jump out is that each work has, if not a specific programme, then at least a temptingly descriptive title. Perhaps the most clearly narratively defined are the Debussy Préludes, and yet perversely the French composer chose to write the titles of each work at the end in the hope that pianists wouldn’t know what they were playing until they’d finished.

“My hunch is that Debussy is saying something similar to what the symbolist poet Baudelaire was talking about when he said that the title of a poem should not be given before the poem is read, because you don't want to reveal what it is about,” Jumppanen explains. “Debussy was profoundly influenced by the symbolist manifesto – his opera Pelléas et Mélisande was taken from symbolist poetry and so on – and the fact that he wrote these titles in a very specific place speaks of their importance, not of their unimportance.”

Jumppanen sees the intricate second book as a psychological journey compared with its more straightforward predecessor. If he makes a selection of just a few preludes, he observes, he usually chooses them from the first book. However, given the choice, he would prefer to play the second book as a whole. “The original response to book two was that it was pessimistic compared to the luminous optimism of the first book with all its Mediterranean references,” he says, “but in the second there are gloomy titles such as Dead Leaves and Mist, and then the Fireworks at the end have this curious deteriorating quote of The Marseillaise. There's something of a deconstructed feel to the second book.”

The Sibelius is perhaps even more oblique. Kyllikki is a 13-minute, three-movement piece in semi-sonata form, named for the wife of Lemminkäinen in the Kalevala but otherwise bearing no programmatic content. It doesn’t help that Sibelius’s piano works have always been overshadowed by his orchestral music. Jumppanen thinks that’s unfair, partially blaming their obscurity on the fact that they are all miniatures. “A lot of his piano works are very intricate, extremely interesting and beautifully written for the piano, but they are not very showy so perhaps they don’t attract the big applause,” he explains.

“Miniatures in general have been overlooked because we had a tendency during the 19th and 20th centuries to admire greatness and grandness. Some composers have been able to get over that – like Debussy, who's a similar case in that most of his works are ‘petite’, but with Debussy we link refinement with conciseness. I'm certainly not alone in thinking that Sibelius is a very, very fine piano composer, and it's always great to bring his music to new audiences because they are generally surprised.”

Photo © Pia Johnson

As is often the case with Jumppanen, things have a way of coming back again to Beethoven, a composer who spent a lifetime transforming the piano sonata as a form, although seeming never to settle on any particular template.I completely agree that Beethoven was not set on a formal structure, or a layout even, and that goes for all of his works, even the chamber sonatas which seem to be more conventional,” Jumppanen reckons.

“The piano sonata, in a way, is his most innovative form. It was almost a composing laboratory for him, because he didn't have the baggage of them ever having to be performed. Even the string quartets were always written for a performance, but the piano sonatas were meant for the private consumer and as educational pieces. You don't have anything in other genres by Beethoven, which, for instance, finish in minor keys. Even pieces that begin in the minor always finish in a major key. That's just one example of the freedom he enjoyed with the piano.”

As to the question of which, for Jumppanen, are the key stages in Beethoven’s development of the piano sonata, he cites the Op. 10 works as the first significant milestone. “There's a feeling of him no longer being a student,” he says. “The sonatas written before that are all unique masterpieces, but there is the model of Haydn that lurks around here and there. By Op. 10, he's completely on his own. Another milestone would be the ‘Fantasie’ sonatas, like the Moonlight and the Pastoral, which turn inward and are a sort of rebuke to the positive-maverick style he developed in the Op. 10 works.”

“You could name all the sonatas from then on – he was certainly on the move all the time – because they are written with a greater time lapse between each of them. Each one jumps forward stylistically, but certainly the Appassionata is a huge landmark. Its conciseness, its effectiveness compared to anything he's written before in any genre, is absolutely striking. And then there’s the dualism in the late works between the Hammerklavier, which is a monument to Classicism, looking backwards with a return to the four movement form, and then the great freedom of the last three sonatas. In a way, his musical language didn't change a whole lot or become more or less chromatic, but somehow his structural and performative narrative choices made these pieces very different from each other.”

Intriguingly, on his blog Jumppanen writes about how he recorded the opening of the Moonlight Sonata at every recording session over five years. Listening to them all afterwards, he was slightly disappointed that there weren't major perceivable differences between his way of playing the piece when he started and the way they sounded when he finished. So, looking back across the entire cycle and over many years, is there a particular sonata where he thinks his interpretation may have changed significantly?

“That’s a good question,” he replies, thoughtfully. “I do actually think my approach has changed from the time of recording, and maybe I could name the Waldstein Sonata. As a kid I was always impressed by Emil Gilels’ rather chilly way of playing it, and I still admire that. As a young student I played it a lot, and probably I wanted it to sound like that, but I think I look at that piece quite differently now.”

Of course, it’s the Appassionata that Jumppanen is playing in Australia, a sonata that could probably never be described as ‘chilly’. If audiences need warming up after the psychological frigidity of a Debussy or a Sibelius, then Beethoven’s emotive F Minor masterpiece should be just the thing to get the circulation moving again. But then, as Jumppanen tells me, “Beethoven has the capability to inspire the listener like no other composer.”

Paavali Jumppanen tours Australia, beginning with the Castlemaine State Festival on March 24 & 25 and followed by a special recital at the Embassy of Finland in Canberra on March 27. He then gives recitals at Brisbane’s QPAC on March 29 and the Ukaria Cultural Centre, Mt. Barker on April 2.