Joonas Kokkonen: Quintet For Piano And String Quartet, op. 5

performed by the Sibelius Academy Quartet

(So this, I think, is the first time in the series that we don’t have a video available on YouTube, but it certainly won’t be the last. As it turns out, there are about a half a dozen works I’ve chosen for this series that don’t have recordings on YouTube, but honestly, if you use iTunes music, or Spotify, or whatever, you should probably be able to get your ears on some of the stuff I’m discussing. I’ve purchased almost all of the music I share, so if you’re really interested, spend a few bucks and check the piece out. Don’t rely on copyright-violating videos. I’m also not going to let that dictate my musical diet, so if the article strikes you as interesting, go listen to the piece. Also, I’d strongly suggest this work as one worth buying; it’s very good.)

(cover image by Dominik Dombrowski)

Joonas Kokkonen was born on November 13, 1921 in Iisalmi, in central Finland. He studied at the University of Helsinki, and later at the Sibelius Academy with Aarre Merikanto, says the Finnish Wiki. He himself later taught at the Sibelius Academy, and among his students was Aulis Sallinen.

Kokkonen was also an important influence in other areas, serving as chairman or organizer with organizations like the Society of Finnish Composers, Board of the Concert Centre, etc. The death of his wife affected him greatly (obviously), and he composed far less after that, and drank far more.

Much of his compositional output was chamber work, but he also wrote four symphonies, with a fifth that never came to fruition, as well as a cello concerto, his opera The Last Temptation, and more. Wikipedia tells us that his compositional output can be organized into three periods: an early neoclassical period, a twelve-tone middle period, and “a late “neo-Romantic” style of free tonality which also used aspects of his earlier style periods.”

I had two of his works in my playlist as contenders for this article, an earlier piano trio from like 1949, as well as this work, which carries an opus number, from 1953. The earlier work may have been a student piece (since it doesn’t carry an opus number), and shows talent, but isn’t nearly as interesting as the work we’ll discuss today. While only a few years apart, the neoclassical idiom of the piano trio lacks a little bit of the depth and inspiration we hear in the quintet, but both are worth hearing.

They’re both short works, also, the quintet slightly longer, with four movements instead of three, and coming in at about 23 minutes, three minutes longer than the Trio Finnico’s recording of the trio.

Again, we’re in pretty lonely waters here, with not a whole lot of reading or research to do on these pieces. The quintet’s four movements are as follows:

  1. Moderato
  2. Scherzo: Allegro
  3. Adagio non troppo
  4. Allegro Moderato

The first movement is the longest, with the remaining three of almost equal length, hovering around about five minutes each. The first movement does most of the heavy lifting for the establishment of the setting and presentation of material, and Kokkonen shows a musical maturity in the cohesiveness of his writing.

The first movement introduces a quality of the work that we’ll see through to the final bars of the finale. At the very beginning, we get individual pitches, like points in a constellation, that establish the general shape of a musical contour, like a nebulous, half-formed blob. You’ll notice after this introduction when the full detail becomes apparent, like a camera lens focusing on a subject, the lines and delineations becoming crisp and clear. There’s a moment when that happens in this first movement, and the memorable nature of this shape, the ups and downs of the melody, are exciting not only for this movement, but provide the momentum for the entire rest of the work, really.

The second movement scherzo seems to feed off of the intensity that was unveiled in the first movement, keeping that melodic line that came into focus in the context of the second movement. The trio is brief, quiet, and sounds something like Sibelius in its melancholy nature and haunting melodies, which greatly contrast with the lively return of the scherzo. This contrast is heightened by the juxtaposition of these two ideas at the very end of the movement.

The third movement is marked adagio non troppo and while generally a bit desolate and quite mournful sounding, still feels connected to the surrounding movements, especially calling to mind the previous trio. Remember the contour of the melody of the first movement, with just its four or five points, before it came into focus? Do you hear the piano plodding out those same notes? It sounds like a similar contour to me, with the strings weeping alongside it. As the shortest movement of the piece, there isn’t much ground covered, so it acts more as an aside, stepping into another room from the other three movements.

The opening phrase of the finale is one of the most memorable of the entire work. There’s a troubled nature about the movement. Again, the contour here is a striking one, etched into the listener’s mind. It’s easily identifiable, so that when we hear it return in different ways, woven throughout the contrapuntal passages of this finale, it stands out as powerful and exciting. It’s a good example of how musical ideas can be so captivating beyond just pretty or exciting melodies. This music goes places, even with a work as seemingly small-scale as this one. I hear Brahms, Sibelius… but what will become more apparent as you listen to other works of his is that who you hear is Kokkonen himself!

He’s one of the handful of Finnish composers who gets two pieces featured in the series, and (as with Melartin and Sibelius), we get a chamber piece and a symphony, so it’s a good chance to hear his approach in more than one genre. No spoilers, and maybe it just so happens to be the two pieces I’ve picked out, but they both strike me as lean, focused, compact but substantial works that make a clear point. This is easily enough heard in the final gesture of the finale, closing out this handsome, taut chamber piece with a commanding closing blow, like the final nail in a coffin.

I really would strongly suggest making this purchase. It’s been one of my favorite works in the series so far, but wasn’t the first few times I listened to it. His development and treatment of the material is thoroughly satisfying, very moving, no fluff.

We’ll be seeing a bit more of (mature) Kokkonen a little over a week from now, so please do stay tuned for that, because I’m really quite impressed with everything of his that I’ve heard. There was a piano trio without an opus number that almost got a feature, but this one won out. Go check him out if you can.

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