Uuno Klami: Symphony no. 1

performed by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen

(cover image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor)

Uuno Kalervo Klami was born on September 20, 1900 in Virolahti, in the very southeast of Finland. He studied in Helsinki with Melartin, and later in Paris and Vienna, but neither the English nor the Finnish Wiki articles say with whom. He was enamored with French music in Paris, and took a particular liking to Ravel’s work.

Overall, he wrote two symphonies, two piano concertos, a violin concerto, as well as suites and other symphonic works. He received a small lifetime income from the Finnish government upon recommendation from Sibelius, and died of a heart attack at the age of 60 on his sailboat.

The first symphony dates from 1937.

As with Madetoja last week, this work is an interesting amalgam of is and isn’ts. Do you hear the influence of Sibelius? In one way, yes. In another, no. Is it Do you hear Klami’s affinity for neoclassicism? Yes, but I also wouldn’t call it a neoclassical work. Do you hear Russian influence, like that of Prokofiev, or Shostakovich with out the sarcastic bite? Yes and no. Interestingly, then, this work somehow carves out its own voice, hitting on some familiar areas while still somehow being unique. It’s overall a very positive symphony; there’s none of the dark, brooding Sibelius here, no laments or sorrows, but it’s not without contrast. Let’s have a look.

Do you hear what I mean? The beginning timpani suggests an ominous tone, but then we have wisps of a march before finally settling into a buoyant, lively subject that’s at once light and neoclassical in style, but still hefty and Romantic. Wait for the broad, expressive second subject to settle in. It kind of blows by like a fresh breeze in your face, warm and comforting. In all this vibrant expressiveness, though, there’s not a moment of slack, no unnecessary indulgence in gushy sentiment. It’s a well-balanced, vivid movement, with lots of memorable moments, some really enjoyable contrapuntal passages, excellent orchestral writing, all making for a very compelling first movement full of personality. Absolute music at its finest, with an exhilarating finish.

That first movement is the longest of the four-movement work, and the second, marked prestissimo, is the shortest, but doesn’t feel that fast at first. Things come to life in a similarly pastoral, sunny nature, and as I listen, I find myself thinking of Brahms more and more. This is all clearly absolute music, irresistibly honest and forthright, no cheesy program or anything here. It’s not only the sincerity in the music, but also the real quality of the writing that makes me think of Brahms, and this lighter scherzo (with the exception of a few surprisingly militaristic passages), more in clicks and chirps and pastoral scenes than blustery, boisterous clamor, seems in the spirit of The Bearded Wonder. I mean, if he’d been Finnish and lived a few more decades. But it sounds nothing like him, if that makes sense.

The third movement, marked andante molto, is the first place in this symphony where we slow down a bit, but even here the themes are masterfully connected to what we’ve heard before. The general elation and warmth continues. There’s nothing somber or funereal here; it’s a slow movement with long, broad lines, and a bucolic, relaxing atmosphere, much like the second subject of the first movement, but still softer. Mostly.

Even here in this movement we get passages that seem like they’ve gotten lost and should go back to the scherzo. We also get glimpses of a Tchaikovsky-esque waltz-like thing, and all of these individual elements make for a slow movement that’s much more than just a slow movement.

And now, after all that, three pretty interconnected movements, we have an opening to the finale that sounds militaristic and ominous, but by now, we should know that nothing with this work should be taken at face value, and the percussion-heavy opening cools down almost immediately to a pastoral, flute- and oboe-dominated theme. The snare drum ostinato, however, hangs around for a bit. With the various, shimmering themes in this finale, the work is rounded off in a celebratory, and at times even comical, manner.

This is an impressive first symphony, but not for the reasons I’d usually say so. It isn’t heavy or tragic or cataclysmic or complexly structured. In fact, it’s just barely short of what I’d consider to be a bit too cheery. There’s no funeral march here, no maniacal scherzo, and by the darkly playful, very Prokofiev-esque finish of the finale, we realize that this is overall a very optimistic work, but so full of color and personality and interest that it keeps my attention for the entirety of its 44 minutes. We can hear things in it that we know, so it’s familiar and yet also still new, and overall exquisitely crafted. It’s a passionate, sincere work, an excellent choice for anyone interested in hearing something new but not too foreign.

Maybe this sounds more Russian than Finnish. Or does it? There’s really a lot in there, and by the time it’s over, I’m quite satisfied. There’s an enormous amount of confidence in this work, and there should be.

We have two more remarkable symphonies this week, one of which is a highlight of the series for sure, and a work I think might become one of my new favorites, so please stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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