• A musical tour of Europe’s great cities: Helsinki.


    A musical tour of Europe’s great cities: Helsinki.


    In the fourth in our series, we look at the Finnish capital and its music.



    A musical tour of Europe’s great cities: Helsinki.

    Sibelius’s work may not be about Helsinki, but the city was central to his life. Photograph: Getty Images/Panoramic Images


    I chose Helsinki as our next port of call on a whim. I was just putting the finishing touches to Venice, the third in this series of post-Brexit love letters to Europe’s musical centres, when news came through that the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara had died.


    Some recognition of the fact seemed to be in order, though Napoleon Bonaparte – one of the commenters on the Venice article, in which I invited suggestions for Helsinki – immediately saw the flaw in my choice. “The trouble … is that not a lot of Finnish music has an urban feel to it. Of course one can go with the premieres of famous works, but there’s little in, say, Sibelius’s output that says ‘Helsinki’.”


    It’s true, of course. The musical Finland we love is all forests and lakes and sleigh rides through frozen landscapes. My number one piece of Finnish music is Sibelius’s Kullervo, an everyday tale (based on the national epic) of incest, murder and suicide. I can’t say I’ve ever got too preoccupied by the dismal story – the music’s epic sweep is what grips me. If ever I need a shot of musical adrenaline, I play the first movement, and there I am bounding through the snow.


    Sibelius’s work may not say “Helsinki”, but the city was central to his life. He studied there, premiered many of his works there, and wined and dined to excess there before building a retreat, which he named Ainola, after his wife, 30 miles north of the city. He is synonymous with Finland and Finnish music, and deservedly in any pantheon of great composers.


    All seven of his symphonies are masterpieces, and richly varied ones at that – from the Tchaikovskyan First through the majestic Second (which may or may not be an expression of Finnish nationalist fervor), to the unremitting darkness of the Fourth and the affirmatory power of the Fifth and Seventh.


    The Third and Sixth are played less often, but they are as essential as the rest. Sibelius’s symphonic cycle loses nothing in a comparison with those of Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich: each feels inevitable, like bricks in a great wall that would collapse if you removed any of them. They chart Sibelius’s struggle against illness and disillusion, and it is fitting – if sad – that he burned sketches (perhaps even a full score) of a projected eighth symphony because it failed to meet his exacting standards, and published virtually no new music during the final 30 years of his long life.


    Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and the tone poem En Saga are also works that it would be impossible to be without. Beyond these obvious mountain peaks, “thesecretorganist” (one of a small band of devoted commenters to whom these columns owe a great deal) says he wants to “fly the flag” for Sibelius’s lesser-known music, in particular “the massively underrated piano music”: “I especially love the wonderful Romance in D flat, Op 24 No 9, which I once made a rather misguided attempt to learn.” It’s a piece that packs a lot into its four minutes, and I can see (or perhaps hear) why it proved hard to master.


    Since Rautavaara was the inspiration for heading north (I really am now sounding horribly like a Radio 3 announcer doing one of their imaginary musical journeys), it is time to engage with his work. The composer sums up much of the difficulty of modern music. He is much played and much recorded, but very few people beyond contemporary music specialists will even have begun to come to terms with his large repertoire – more than 150 works, including eight symphonies, 12 concertos and nine operas.


    As with the late Peter Maxwell Davies, the vast output becomes almost self-defeating. What will really stick in the repertoire? Rautavaara’s dreamy Seventh Symphony from 1994, subtitled the Angel of Light, has certainly established itself, tapping into the urge for spiritual fulfilment that also fuelled the success of Górecki’s near-contemporaneous Third Symphony and Tavener’s The Protecting Veil.


    Less easily classifiable is Rautavaara’s Piano Concerto No 1, which finds him moving from the serial techniques he embraced in the 1960s towards the romanticism of his later compositions. A wonderful work, as are the monumental (some say Brucknerian) Third Symphony and the lyrical Eighth, “The Journey”, a cliched subtitle that in fact perfectly sums up Rautavaara’s stylistically restless but never faddish career.

    A musical tour of Europe’s great cities: Helsinki.

    Einojuhani Rautavaara photographed in 2014. Photograph: Martti Kainulainen/AFP/Getty Images


    This, though, is merely to scratch the surface, and we will be coming to terms with Rautavaara’s oeuvre for decades to come. As long, that is, as orchestras and promoters have the confidence to programme his music. There needs to be a sea change in the way in which we approach “classical” (wretched word) music, to get across the fact that the canon didn’t end with the death of Shostakovich.


    Napoleon Bonaparte recommended Uuno Klami’s Suomenlinna Overture (1940) as a more Helsinki-specific composition. I haven’t so far been able to find that, but did listen to the evocative (and oddly un-Finnish) Sea Pictures and Klami’s First and Second Symphonies. The influence of Sibelius is unmistakable, but Klami is a definite find.


    It’s also worth reading Napoleon Bonaparte’s immensely detailed and discerning commentary (under the Venice article) on other lesser-known Finnish composers. He makes a particular plea for the piano music of Selim Palmgren, who studied and lived in Helsinki, and it is indeed a delight. Try the Satie-esque Nocturne in Three Scenes and Palmgren’s arresting Piano Sonata No 1.


    All of which goes to prove, once again, that the best part of this series are your suggestions, so do keep them coming. I plan to look at Prague next time, so please give me your thoughts on music linked to that city, but also feel free to moot your own favourite musical locations. Vienna, Madrid and Hamburg are already on the stocks for the future.


    A final thought about musical productivity. I said that one difficulty for us in getting out heads around Rautavaara was the sheer number of large-scale works to absorb. Where, then, does that leave Leif Segerstam and his 300 symphonies? Probably nowhere, as the works are really frameworks for performers to go their own aleatory way. An interesting idea, but where on Earth do we begin? Those crazy Finns!



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