Kokkonen Symphony no. 3

performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Berglund

(cover image by Cassie Boca)

Kokkonen’s work, even in the early piece we discussed last weekend, seems to have an inherent power that derives from its brevity, a concentration and focus that gives the pieces (that I’ve heard) a weighty, epic nature despite their seemingly small size.

Today’s symphony dates from 1967 and is in four movements, with a total time of only about 17 minutes. As follows:

  1. Andante sostenuto
  2. Allegro
  3. Allegretto Moderato
  4. Adagio

One of the first things you notice about those markings is that it may remind you of some of the great (ostensibly) final symphonies of the past, like Tchaikovsky’s sixth and Mahler’s ninth. These both had a sort of ‘inside-out’ nature to them, with the inner movements being the faster, more lively ones, and the outer movements the more pensive. Mahler wouldn’t have appreciated suggesting the parallel, though.

The first movement, as compact as it (and the entire symphony) is, still feels like it has an expansive breadth, with room to grow from a kernel in the way a Bruckner or Sibelius symphony would. There are horn calls, melancholy strings, and a few melodic contours that are carved out throughout these five minutes that are at once so unassuming and yet also powerfully memorable as the potential motifs behind the entire movement.

The second movement is razor-sharp, cutting through its two-and-a-half minutes with a sort of muffled, subdued nervousness. The buzz moves around the orchestra, and it’s only in a quick climax that the piece really erupts into anything big. It closes quietly, but overall possesses a frenetic and unrelenting energy.

The third movement is only slightly longer, and continues a bit of the chirpiness of the previous movement, but is overall made much more of softer curves, like swells on the ocean that never really crest. Underlying both of these movements is a sort of unsettling dark side, not necessarily a menace like you’d find in Shostakovich or the Rondo Burlesque of Mahler’s ninth, but similar, a feeling that there’s more there than meets the ear.

The finale is the longest of the four movements, at a whopping six minutes. Kokkonen has shown us, in just these two pieces of his we’ve discussed in this series, how poignantly he constructs his works. I won’t go so far as to say that his final adagio is of the same monumentally powerful nature as those of Mahler’s pen, but it suggests the same haunting, pensive atmosphere, ethereal and eternal. More satisfyingly, though, it is, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, a sublimely perfect finishing statement to this symphony, as if it completes the sentence the other movements had just started.

In this brevity, not quite as extreme as Webern’s op. 21, one advantage is that everything is so concise, so immediate. I’m obviously a lover of sprawling, grand, overwhelming symphonies like those from Mahler or Bruckner; they were certainly never masters of brevity. But there’s a different sort of power in something as compact as Kokkonen’s third here, and it’s that the entire thing hangs in your short-term memory, the immediate experience. Nothing about it is too big to comprehend; rather, it’s more like a fine whisky in that it may take some air, a bit of water, or a few sips to really appreciate in detail.

Each listen of the work, in only 17 minutes, gives you a better appreciation of the fine craft in this piece, its overall tone readily apparent. Perhaps I should keep an article about such a poignant piece equally short, but suffice it to say I have perhaps been more impressed with (as in, really impacted and surprised by) the quality and beauty of Kokkonen’s works than with any other composer in this series.

I’m a sucker for continuity, for an argument that is connected and developed and accomplishes something concrete, that has a destination or a point. Sometimes it’s nice to take Mahler’s hand and go with him on a wild ride like the second or third or eighth symphony (or really any of them), but other times, it’s equally breathtaking to be wowed by something so dense and concentrated but equally crystalline. Just masterful.

That’s it for now, though. We’ll be seeing a different symphonist later in the week, so do stay tuned for that and thank you very much for reading. (Go listen to this symphony again; it’s quick and worth the time.)

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