Sallinen Symphony no. 2, op. 29

Symphonic Dialogue for percussion and orchestra
performed by Gert Mortensen and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Okko Kamu, available on Spotify

(cover image by Gerald Berliner)

Full disclosure: I’m not entirely sure what makes this a symphony and not a concerto for percussion, or even more suitably just a symphonic piece featuring percussion, but it’s listed as Sallinen’s second concerto.

The piece dates from 1972, the year following his superb first symphony. It was a commission from the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, who premiered it with percussionist Rainer Kuisma under Okko Kamu, whose name you’ll see come up more than a little when discussing Sallinen’s work.

The piece is in a single movement lasting (in the above recording exactly but I should probably just say) around 16 minutes. The subtitle given to the work on the album, and perhaps in the score, is “symphonic dialogue for solo percussion player,” which seems to suit the piece better.

Wikipedia has one article for all eight of Sallinen’s symphonies (and no other language but English for that!), giving only four sentences to this piece. One of them reads:

The work is based principally on two themes, a falling scale, and a fanfare-like motif; the percussion part, well-integrated into the symphony as a whole demands use of marimba, vibraphone, crotales, tom-tom, bongo, military snare drum, suspended cymbal, guiro and tam-tam.

Honestly, the piece reminds me a lot of my days back in wind band/concert band/symphonic band, whatever you want to call it. It’s something about the color and vividness of the work, maybe.

The piece opens with one of those two aforementioned themes, like a train building momentum out of the station. The entire orchestra moves as one, in sync with this great downward motion, and I suppose the percussion both adds to and contrasts with that grandness, giving a fantastic amount of color and texture.

There’s a percussion cadenza, heavy on the snare, and the ‘fanfare-like motif’ is really just a brassy utterance, a towering, menacing roar that’s quite breathtaking but doesn’t stick around as much as I’d like for it to for the kind of heft it has.

At almost four minutes in, there’s a long pause, with a drum roll on either side, and I’m wondering if this actually denotes a separate movement, or if it’s all part of the percussionist’s performance, because what follows is a much softer passage, generally still, with regal, almost Brucknerian fanfare figures in the distance, but generally still besides the percussion.

While this is kind of an odd layout, this business of a (perhaps) single-movement symphony that’s kind of a percussion feature, to me, the musical material is captivating. It might be a little more film-score theatric than his first symphony or the brilliant violin concerto, but there really is a magical quality.

There appears out of this stillness a Prokofiev-esque rhythm, with plucked strings and flutes, that seems like it should come out of a ballet. Things devolve from there, though, and the stillness collapses into near-chaos, driven mostly by percussion. The end of this piece is marked by Schnittkean drama and sudden, arresting stillnesses, the warm roundness of marimba, and the itchy feeling that while this seems not at all like a symphony, it was actually, undeniably, a very enjoyable listen, and that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

We’re done with Sallinen for now, and moving on to the last installment of this stretch of Editor’s Choice pieces, the one who really inspired the whole idea, so do stay tuned for that (spoiler alert: he wrote a violin concerto but it seems recordings of it are impossible to come by for reasons I’ll discuss next week) and thanks so much for reading.

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