Rautavaara: Before the Icons & A Tapestry of Life / Segerstam

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Here we have one of the greatest living composers working in the full inspiration of his mature style, performed and recorded with world-class passion and intensity. It really doesn't get any better. Before the Icons began life as a piano suite in 1955. In creating this orchestral version Rautavaara separated some of the individual numbers with interludes for string orchestra ("Prayers") and added a concluding "Amen". The music is wide-ranging and thoroughly approachable, though never cloying or cheap. Most of the "icon" movements feature the sound of bells as a unifying timbre, though the music isn't at all "churchly" in a conventional sense. It's a moving, even noble work, though it does have its lighter moments (the third movement: "Two Village Saints").

A Tapestry of Life (2007) has four movements lasting a bit more than 24 minutes. The second piece, "Halcyon Days", is stunningly lovely, while the concluding "Final Polonaise" builds to a powerful, ominous close. Each of the four movements is well contrasted and expressively affecting. It's great to have the opportunity to hear this music while it's still new, and as mentioned above the performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic under Leif Segerstam is first rate. If you care even mildly about contemporary music, or just good classical music, you owe it to yourself to hear this disc.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com



RAUTAVAARA Before the Icons. A Tapestry of Life Leif Segerstam, cond; Helsinki PO ONDINE 1149-2 (49:37)

I have to tell you, at the outset of this review, that I moved to this CD immediately after reading Jack Reilly’s book The Harmony of Bill Evans, Vol. 2 (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) and listening to the accompanying CD, and that I found a great many similarities—more so than differences.

Einojuhan Rautavaara, who many probably do not know is the son of one of the greatest Mozart sopranos of the early 20th century (Aulikki, who sang the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro on the old Glyndebourne recording conducted by Fritz Busch), has always written music in an amorphic style in which mood is as important as form. These works are no exception, and by doing so he allies his sparse melodic structures to the very sort of underlying density in chord progressions that were the heart of Bill Evans’s jazz pieces.

Before the Icons spans a full half-century of composition. Rautavaara wrote a set of six impressions on Byzantine icons for piano in 1955, immediately planned to orchestrate them, but did not get around to it until 2005! At that time, he wrote three “prayers” to go between the icons, scored for strings to reflect the voice of the individual. Some of the iconic pieces are agitated, powerful music, particularly the first ( The Death of the Mother of God ) and last ( Archangel Michael Fighting the Antichrist ), but not always, while the prayers are gentle and reflective. As usual, it’s a fascinating piece, and if he hadn’t revealed its genesis, one would have a hard time imaging a half-century between its two parts.

A Tapestry of Life is based on various poems or stories that influenced him. Again, as the music is impressionistic, it transcends the words to produce a feeling rather than a narrative. “Stars Swarming” was inspired by a poem by Edith Södergran, a surrealistic nightly vision where stars keep falling in the garden until the lawn is full of splinters. “Halcyon Days” uses the simple, monotonous repetition of a triplet, which gives rise to a slowly ascending cantabile melody (shades of Bill Evans again). Rautavaara’s coloristic effects derive from his very French-based style of orchestration overlaid on his Finnish musical sensibilities.

I’ve been a fan of Leif Segerstam since the early 1970s and saw him conduct both La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera and his own works with the Cincinnati Symphony. For the life of me, I don’t understand why he is so undervalued (or, more often, ignored) as a conductor, as I consider him one of the greatest of the 20th century, but particularly in this music he gives his best because his own sensibilities are very close to Rautavaara’s. I urge you to get this record. It is a wonderful souvenir of both composer and conductor.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ODE 1149-2

  • UPC: 761195114926

  • Label: Ondine

  • Composer: Einojuhani Rautavaara

  • Conductor: Leif Segerstam