performed by Rhondda Gillespie and the Helsinki Philharmonic under the late Jiří Bělohlávek, available on Spotify
(cover image by David Clode)
This is not an easy one to write about, but I’d say that it’s easier to listen to, probably, upon just the second or third listen than you may expect.
Meriläinen’s name is not a household one, likely not even in Finland, whence he came. Despite that, this is his third appearance on the blog, which means he’s now been on here more than Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nielsen, Copland, Berlioz, and on and on. We did two pieces, his first string quartet and then another chamber work, last year as part of the Finnish series. I discovered this work while doing some digging for that series, even though it was symphonies and chamber work, not piano concertos, but I found the piece really captivating.
It was composed in 1969, and that’s really all I know about it. His first dates from 1955, the same year as Englund’s earlier in the week, and is far less modern sounding than this one. The work seems to be in a single movement, or is at least tracked that way in the recording, and seems to progress without distinct movements, but I could be wrong. It has a duration of almost 19 minutes.
Where do we even begin? Well, what I was going to say at the beginning was that people don’t have any impression of Meriläinen’s name in the way they do, say, depending on their familiarity with music, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Bach, Haydn, Stockhausen, Mosolov, on and on and on. People see the name Usko Meriläinen and have no idea what to expect, so let’s say… it’s a bit like if a less angry Pierre Boulez went to spend some time in the Arctic. Does that give you a starting point? Maybe not.
Ruth-Esther Hillila, in her book Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland, which I am sure but also to lazy to confirm that I quoted in one of the Meriläinen articles linked above, describes the composer’s work of the time this way:
His twelve-tone rows may be followed with new rows, instead of being varied in the usual manner. Contrasting instrumental tone qualities are also important, giving the effect of individuals in conversation.
Granted, that may not sound especially insightful, but after mentioning Metamorfora per 7, the chamber piece I linked above, as an example of this, she says “Other works of this type include the second piano concerto.” So that’s something.
Boulez himself never wrote a piano concerto in any traditional sense, even though we did discuss his Éclat as part of a piano concerto series because it’s sort of concertante-ish. If you’d like to have heard a more standard serial piano concerto, one that’s really, to me, not so terribly difficult to have some appreciation of, then maybe this work is for you.
Since I don’t have really anything insightful to say about it, I’ll suggest a few listening exercises you can do with it. Because I find the work to be exceptionally vivid, full of color and detail and contrast, try to pinpoint areas where these contrasts are made. There are contrasts between the orchestra and the piano, between different sections of the orchestra, between neighboring passages, in texture, volume, atmosphere, tempo, etc. At times the piano plays by itself, the orchestra having disappeared; other times it’s the piano that has disappeared, or at least taken a backseat. What changes in the piece, and how? What contrasts are there vertically (what’s going on simultaneously) and horizontally, in time, from one moment to the next?
And this is the second ‘activity,’ is to try to get an idea for the general contour of the piece. Did you ever do that thing in school where you had to draw a line to graph the plot of a story, where the horizontal axis was time and the vertical was tension? There may be secondary or premature climaxes in the story, but it’s generally followed by a relaxation of that tension, so our line drops until the final climax. That major climax is also usually not too early. I’m not (necessarily) suggesting you do this on actual paper, as even the mental exercise I think will get you at least somewhat involved in the piece.
It begins and ends quietly, and as with many modern pieces, is marked by many extended techniques, like harmonics or sul ponticello, giving respectively a glassy or scratchy sound to the violin. There’s also col legno, where the strings tap with the wooden part of the bow, giving an eerie clicking sound.
In contrast with all of this, though, and I should say the piece is distinctly, unmistakably serial in nature, there are actually soft, clear, delicate passages, just another layer of contrast in a work that I find to be really exquisitely arresting. It’s wonderful that a piece like this, that may not have been performed anywhere on earth for some time, at least has a recording we can reference and enjoy.
The piece with a kind of haunting Schnittke-esque atmosphere, and ultimately, in the end, you may not care much for the piece and some of its shrillness or harshness, but I think it would be hard to argue, if you’ve got a more objective view of music, that this piece has no purpose or accomplishes nothing. The amount of power generated here, and the intensity of the work, at least these things express the composer’s conviction.
Go give it a listen. We’re done with the Finns for now, and with everything modern, for quite some time, but stay tuned for more of our buddy Wolfie this weekend, and actually for the rest of the month. Thanks so much for reading.