At the time of writing this review, it has only been little more than a month since we lost this great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara to the darkness. He was 87. But why talk about death or count the years in relation to a composer of such stylistic breadth and a man who had a seemingly illimitable trust in the unconscious to bring forth ideas?
Take his recent song cycle for baritone and orchestra, Rubáiyát, commissioned in 2014 by the Wigmore Hall for the great Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who performs it on this recording. Rautavaara was a 20-something music student when he first encountered the poetry of Omar Khayyam and swore that he would one day set it to music. Decades later, here is such a cycle, as warm, romantic, lyrical and mysterious as Khayyam’s words, as rendered by his most famous English translator, Edward FitzGerald. Finley is, as you’d expect, the perfect interpreter, every word as distinct as it is coloured with hues mellow and bright.
Some of the cycle’s glowing sensuousness can also be found in Rautavaara’s 2014 Lorca setting, Balada, for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra. Lorca was another of the composer’s favourite poets. It is left to the solo tenor, here the superb Mika Pohjonen, to pierce the honeyed choral and orchestral textures with fierce declamations. The Helsinki Music Centre Choir as deftly fold heft into lightness and vice-versa here as they do in the startlingly dramatic Four Songs from the Opera Rasputin (2012) for mixed choir and orchestra.
The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor John Storgårds is excellent throughout, and its fine string section are allowed to shine in Rautavaara’s lush Canto V, Into the Heart of Light – the only instrumental work on a highly attractive release which one can now also call a fitting tribute to one of the 20th century’s musical giants.