· By Nicholas Stevens

Root & Branch: Reijo Kiilunen and the Ondine Records Story

Over nearly four decades, Ondine Records has brought top-quality classical albums to the world from its Helsinki home base. A vital part of the "Finnish Classical Miracle" that made artists such as Karita Mattila, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Kaija Saariaho beloved around the world, Ondine has also maintained an international roster and profile from the start.

In February 2023, an Ondine album entered the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart at #1 for the first time—just the latest of the label's many milestones. Who built this wondrous project? Reijo Kiilunen, whose vision and ambition still power the label.

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ArkivMusic: Ondine Records began in 1985 as a recording project affiliated with the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. What was your background at that point, and how did you come to this work?

Reijo Kiilunen: I studied music education and graduated from the Sibelius Academy in 1982. During summer seasons I worked for the Helsinki Festival and very much enjoyed working in music business. In 1985 I was invited to run a concert agency in connection to the Kuhmo Festival. The initial idea was that I would produce (on the side!) a live album every summer from the Festival. At that time I was already a record fanatic and had even started a small record review magazine called Seventh Heaven, so when I got a chance to be involved in producing recordings, I put my main focus there. Soon I left concert management and started full time with Ondine.

AM: The first Ondine release to receive global attention featured the music of Rautavaara. Almost 40 years later, Ondine still records this and other Finnish composers’ work, such as that of Saariaho. How do you feel about the present and future of the Finnish “classical miracle”?

RK: I guess that using the word "miracle" is no overstatement. The development started in the '60s with a government decision to invest in music education; accordingly, by the end of that decade, some 10% of all children in Finland were involved in some level of music education. The investment started to bear fruit, and since the '70s we have seen a wide range of artists and composers making big international careers.

The future of Finnish music still looks bright. For example the line of young conductors emerging regularly and making international careers is remarkable.

While aiming to record the best of Finnish music with our key artists and orchestras, I have always wanted to highlight that we do not want to be labeled as a Finnish company that records Finnish music for the sake of its Finnishness. Quality is the main priority...at a very early stage I wanted to develop equally the international side of the label. For example, in the late '80s we recorded Rautavaara’s symphonies and piano concertos with the Bavarian and Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestras, and in the '90s, we started a long term collaboration with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

AM: You have won the Sibelius Medal in 2007 as an outstanding promoter of the composer’s music, and in 2020, an Ondine album featuring Sibelius’s music won Limelight’s Orchestral Recording of the Year award. What has this composer’s music meant to you, personally?

RK: There is something unexplainable about Sibelius’ music. The love for it is unquestionable, it runs through the veins. In my blooming tree of music, most all new discoveries are branches and leaves; Sibelius is at the root.

AM: Congratulations on your historic Billboard #1 chart position! What are some other Ondine releases that you would consider milestones or turning points in the label’s history?

RK: It is hard to name just a few...but if something needs to be mentioned, I think our extensive collaboration with composer Einojuhani Rautavaarawho passed away in 2016has been crucially important, with almost 50 releases over some 30 years. The biggest hit was his Symphony no. 7, "Angel of Light" which in the U.S. alone sold close to 20,000 units. Our nine-album partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach from 2005-2010 also brought us a lot of international recognition. 

We also can’t forget Karita Mattila’s recordings, which in addition to their great artistry have brought us three platinum and two gold albums in the Finnish market...Overall, it seems that we have been blessed to have something exciting happening almost every yearenjoyable releases, accolades and international awardsso the development has been gradual and consistent.

AM: I'm glad you brought up Karita Mattila! The label has had long, productive relationships with performers such as her and Pekka Kuusisto. Who are some young, emerging artists recording for Ondine who hold great potential for further fruitful relationships?

RK: Our cornerstone collaborator in Finland is the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. We made a wonderful line of three releases per year during the eight year tenure of their previous Music Director Hannu Lintu. FRSO’s new music director is a young British conductor Nicholas Collon. We've continued the recording collaboration with him and FRSO in the same three-albums-per-year schedule. Three albums have been released already to great critical acclaim and we very much look forward to the future with Nicholas and his orchestra.

That said, regarding one of their upcoming releases, someone to be watched is an emerging Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen. She comes from Lapland and has a striking personal voice and orchestration skills in creating atmospheres. Her works are already quite widely performed internationally, we have an album coming out in February.

One can also include American conductor Robert Trevino in the Young category. The two Ravel albums that we did with him and his Basque National Orchestra have been highly praised. Another particularly exciting recording is an album called AmericascapesA sonic feast can be expected in October when we release Respighi’s Roman Trilogy with Robert and his RAI National Symphony Orchestra from Italy, where he is Principal Guest Conductor.

AM: To shift focus to the future: are there any future recording projects or Ondine releases that you are particularly excited about that you can reveal?

RK: "Excited" is not maybe the right adjective here, but there is one recording that has a particular importance for me. It relates to the terrible loss of Lars Vogt last September. Lars was a most warmhearted friend and a sublime artist. He had a very strong artistic symbiosis with Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff and with the conductor Paavo Järvi. These artists, together with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, wanted to record a tribute album for Lars. They cleared two days before Christmas Eve in their calendars and recorded an album, including the Brahms Double Concerto. The release is scheduled for September.