★★★★★ Benjamin Northey is expressive and authoritative in superb performances of works by the Finnish master.

City Recital Hall, Sydney
January 11, 2017

The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara died last year at the ripe old age of 87. The New York Times described him as “the greatest Finnish composer since Sibelius”. Indeed, his late work has more than a passing resemblance to Sibelius, who initially arranged for the young composer to study in the USA. “I had to go to America to discover I was European”, Rautavaara wrote. This concert represented a timely tribute, and contained some of the loveliest music I have heard live, ever.

Sibelian textures, particularly the use of flutes, are a prominent feature of Rautavaara’s orchestral palette, as are full string chords reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. His harmony is freely tonal, and while much of his music strives to create an otherworldly mood, it is not without lively passages and dramatic moments of great power.

The concert began with the composer’s hit piece of 1972 (the equivalent of his Planets), a Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Canticus Arcticus. Birdcalls are imitated by the woodwind and brass – two flutes begin the piece in a long solo – but a recording of real birds is played as well. In writing the piece, Rautavaara journeyed to the Northern marshes of Finland with his trusty tape recorder. While the taped nightingale in Respighi’s Pines of Rome can sound corny, in this work the effect is to transport you instantly to a realm untouched by everyday concerns, the timeless, natural sounds tellingly underscored with gently shifting textures. 

A short and jubilant tone poem, Isle of Bliss led to the main work on the programme, the Symphony No 7, Angel of Light (1994). This substantial four-movement symphony is the crowning achievement of Rautavaara’s ‘angel’ series. (Appropriately, the City Recital Hall is in Angel Place.) Rautavaara’s angels are far from the benign observers seen hovering in old paintings. They are creatures of tremendous strength and danger, not unlike the one that appears in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. That power may be felt in a remarkable passage at the close of the quicksilver second movement, where abrupt fortissimo chords punctuate the angel theme played by tuned percussion (if memory serves, celeste and vibraphone). Conversely, the following slow movement concludes with a violin solo of great beauty.

The performances were superb. Conductor Benjamin Northey balanced the orchestral textures defly and pointed structurally important moments, which is vitally necessary in Rautavaara. (Incidentally, Northey once studied with the foremost conductor of this music, Leif Segerstam.) The playing of the woodwind principals not only expressive but tonally beautiful. Similarly impressive contributions came from the first horn, a prominent feature in the mix, and Concertmaster Andrew Haveron in the heart-stopping solo mentioned above. I will admit to having tears in my eyes at the end of the third movement.

I must say, hearing this music in the City Recital Hall was a definite plus. The acoustic is perfect for Rautavaara’s full but clean orchestral writing. The warmth of the lower-middle and bass registers resonated in a way that it never does in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. I see that future SSO concerts of Mozart and Haydn are scheduled for this venue: excellent! On this showing we should also be seeing more of Northey, who was expressive and authoritative at the helm. It was an imaginative decision to program this remarkable and appealing music. Rautavaara wrote eight symphonies, three piano concertos, and other concertos for flute, clarinet, violin, harp, cello and double bass: perhaps the SSO will consider a series?