Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony No. 1 (2003 edition)

(I have written an updated article on this symphony in the few years since this original article. It can be found here, and I’d suggest reading it at least in addition to if not in place of what is below. For posterity, I’ve kept the original article as is.)

Performed by the National Orchestra of Belgium under Mikko Franck (2006) This is far more modern than most other music I own or have listened to. It is Mr. Rautavaara’s first symphony, and according to the page about this album (Book of Visions) (there isn’t even a Wikipedia article about this symphony), it was originally published in 1955. It is described as a four-movement work “of neo-Shostakovich tendencies that the composer revised in 1988…” Some movements were combined and another dropped. Another revision in 2003 added a new central movement, so the whole thing now is apparently around half an hour in length. The first movement feels very ethereal, and comes in at almost 16 minutes (remember it was previously two movements). Any composer that is still alive is obviously considered “modern” regardless of the style of their compositions. Mr. Rautavaara is still alive (he will be 85 on Oct 9) (and has since passed away since the original writing of this article), but is from an entirely different style of composers than some of the modern composers I think of. When I think of composers of modern symphonies (and I am even less familiar with modern works than I am of those in the more historically standard repertoire, so my insight is nothing to rely on), those of the latter half of the 20th century, mostly, I think of names like Havergal Brian, Messiaen, Corigliano, Honegger, Schnittke, Gorecki, Glass, Tippett, and Penderecki. I have listened to and enjoyed some works of these composers (Gorecki 3, Glass), not been able to appreciate others (Schnittke 1, Turangalîla [but I want to try to like this one]) and not listened to the rest (yet). I suppose my point is that he is a modern composer I can more readily like at first listen, as I have not yet been able to appreciate things like serialism (Boulez, Babbitt) or anything too stylistically “modern.” There is a certain mystical quality about his works that I’ve listened to that is pleasant, but somewhat…. Untextural in the sense that it is flowing and beautiful, but tends to get uninteresting after a while. The first two movements I found to be like this. The third gets far more interesting texturally. There is much more interesting use of low brass, horns, high woodwinds and percussion that give motion and interest to the Allegro. It feels like a nice fresh wake up after the first two movements. In fact, with the heavy reliance on winds and lots of clappy, bangy percussion, it begins to sound like a very modern piece for concert band. And then it’s over. Side note: both Rautavaara and Franck both studied at the Sibelius Academy, maybe just cuz they’re both Finnish… Also, Franck is super young (born 1979). All in all, nice music, but a bit plain for the first two movements of flowing and humming strings. Listen to his piano concerto that he wrote for Ashkenazy though (number 3?).

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