Sallinen Violin Concerto, op. 18

performed by Jaakko Kuusisto and the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra under Ari Rasilainen, available on Spotify

(cover image by Andrew Kovac)

For some reason, I expected Sallinen to have more than one violin concerto to his name, but no. His sole concerto for violin and orchestra comes from 1968, and is dedicated to violinist Oleg Kagan, who Music Finland tells us was to play the solo part, but couldn’t get his visa sorted out. Thus, Okko Kamu took the role as soloist and Sallinen himself conducted the premiere.

The work is relatively brief, actually, coming in at about 18 minutes, and in three movements, as follows:

  1. Andante sostenuto
  2. Larghetto
  3. Allegro giocoso

Despite being a somewhat short work, it feels quite substantial. The first movement makes up almost half of the piece, and is a slow movement, actually. Like some of the other works we’ve discussed recently, it begins with a somber utterance from the soloist, and is then echoed in a (semitone?) figure by clarinet. Listen for how, even with only these two instruments, there are moments where the entire color palette changes; despite the stillness and nakedness of the music, there’s actually plenty to savor.

Clarinet disappears, and the violin cadenza develops, and finally, seemingly waking the beast that is the orchestra, who trundles to life as the violin proceeds with its narration that sounds almost baroque at times. It’s breathtaking. Piano and harp enter at critical moments for additions of Shostakovich-esque color. There are a few figures that repeat throughout this relatively compact movement, like the bolts that hold it together, and is nothing short of captivating, with stunningly beautiful violin writing and dramatic orchestral passages. It’s a brilliant first movement. I assume it’s something of a sonata-form first movement, but the forward motion of the movement is so wonderful, the way it develops, that I am not bothered by not identifying primary and secondary subjects. The cadenza is one of the most remarkably beautiful passages I’ve heard.

It leads mysteriously into the percussion-heavy second movement. We’ll hear more of this in his second symphony later this week, but the textures and sounds here are very worth taking note of. The violin writing has such finesse! Of the work as a whole, Raymond Tuttle says:

Rather than writing a virtuoso display work, Sallinen has written a novella in which the violin soloist is the main character. Here as always, Sallinen’s timbral sensitivity is outstanding.

This central movement bears that out, with its meditative still qualities, and a real convincing balance between soloist and orchestra. The climax of this central, generally quiet movement, comes in the form of (or at least backed by) a triumphant trumpet solo, echoed by the violin, which leads us right into the finale.

A sharp figure is passed around the orchestra, started by violin and echoing through the ensemble, and what results is something that sounds in flashes like it may become a ‘scherzando’ theme. This movement is the most biting of the three, but even then it doesn’t really bare teeth. That sumptuous, ornate violin writing continues, and as occasionally as this piece seems to rise to the level of wild intensity or virtuosic writing, it is at times suitable, certainly upon closing out a piece, and we get a rousing peroration from violin and orchestra, but one that’s slightly surprising considering the tone of the piece overall. That being said, it’s an absolutely remarkable piece.

Gramophone says that this piece is “one of the first works in which Sallinen’s mature voice can be heard, despite the pervasive influence of Shostakovich.” Music Finland talks about “how cleverly Sallinen knows how to deal with the existing material, that an interesting, artificial composition with a very special charm is created.”

I couldn’t agree more. If you’re a lover of Sibelius and Shostakovich, this, while individual, not derivative and therefore neither of those composers’ works, you may find something remarkable here to enjoy. It should be difficult not to.

I’m so impressed with the maturity and restraint and strength of this piece, probably far more so than what we’ll be discussing later this week, but do stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

One thought on “Sallinen Violin Concerto, op. 18

  1. What an incredible piece – thank you! It certainly bears comparison with the only, and better-known, such concerto, respectively, of the two composers you mention in your penultimate paragraph, but something about the Baroque elements also reminded me of the latter’s 6th Symphony.

    Re: your next post, I don’t know for definite who your next Editor’s Choice composer is going to be, but I have my (delighted) suspicions…!

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