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ClassicsOnline Home » RAUTAVAARA: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 / Isle of Bliss
Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928)
Isle of Bliss • Piano Concerto No. 3 (‘Gift of Dreams’) •
Piano Concerto No. 2
Einojuhani Rautavaara was born in Helsinki on 9th October,
1928. Graduating from Helsinki University in 1952, he studied at the Sibelius
Academy with Aarre Merikanto and, after winning a Koussevitzky Foundation
fellowship in 1955, with Vincent Persichetti at the Juilliard School, and with
Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions at Tanglewood. He furthered his studies in
Ascona with Vladimir Vogel and in Cologne with Rudolf Petzold. A lecturer at
the Sibelius Academy from 1966 to 1971, he was then appointed to the state
position of Professor in Arts.
Rautavaara’s early pieces, typified by the prize-winning A
Requiem in Our Time (1953), drew on the Nordic classicism of Sibelius and
Nielsen, as well as the influences of Bartók, Shostakovich and folk-music. His
Fourth Symphony (1962) was among the first Finnish works to employ serial
techniques, while the subsequent widening of his stylistic range gave rise, in
1972, to two of his most enduring works: Vigilia, drawing on Orthodox
liturgical chant, and Cantus Arcticus (Naxos 8.554147), employing taped
birdsong alongside modal and aleatoric (chance-derived) elements. Greater tonal
orientation is evident in his more recent music, such as the last four
symphonies (Symphony No. 7, Naxos 8.555814) and the operas Thomas (1985),
Vincent (1990) and Aleksis Kivi (1997). Meanwhile the growing recognition
accorded his music can be gauged from the number of recordings and
international commissions received over the last decade.
Composed in 1995 for the orchestra of Espoo Music Institute,
Isle of Bliss was inspired by Home of the Birds, a poem of Aleksis Kivi
(1834-72) depicting the mythical concept of the island paradise. Rautavaara’s
piece broadly follows the overall form of the poem: a lively opening, passing
into a reflective section, marked by contributions from numerous solo wind
instruments, which evokes time standing still; at length, the emergence of an
expressive string threnody denoting the arrival of dawn, then a recall of the
opening pages which precedes the music’s swift passing into silence.
Rautavaara’s First Piano Concerto, written in 1969, was
among the first works in which he turned away from an outwardly modernist
aesthetic, seeking, in his own words, to evoke “the entire rich grandeur of the
instrument”. Twenty years later and the Second Piano Concerto, written at the
request of Ralf Gothoni, finds an intriguing accommodation between traditional
and more radical elements. Serial technique is employed, but the re-orderings
of a twelve-note row do not determine the substance of the composition as
mediate between the diatonic and chromatic facets of the melodic and harmonic
writing. There are three movements, played without a break, with the duration
of the outer two together equalling that of the inner one.
In Viaggio opens with rippling piano figuration against
fragmentary orchestral writing, a passionate melody moving upwards through the
strings before the soloist comes fully into its own. Percussive interjections
heighten tension, as the strings drive the movement to a dramatic conclusion.
The plaintive piano writing which begins Sognando e libero is echoed by strings
and woodwind in tranquil repose. Towards mid-point the music unexpectedly
gathers pace in a lively toccata, soloist and orchestra chasing each other up
to a brutal climax, which ricochets into silence. The initial ideas are
recalled, transformed in a way that suggests innocence lost and irrecoverable.
Piano and percussion begin the finale, Uccelli sulle passioni, in uncertainty,
strings and brass entering to swell the music dynamically and expressively. As
in the first movement, strings soar upward, now against washes of ‘bird sound’
from the piano and the rest of the orchestra. The work does not so much end as
recede out of earshot, as its very opening is fleetingly recalled.
Rautavaara composed his Third Piano Concerto, subtitled
‘Gift of Dreams’, for Vladimir Ashkenazy, who played and directed the première
with the Helsinki Philharmonic in 1999. Again there are three movements, though
the opening movement almost equals the length of its successor. Gently
expressive string writing is complemented by that for the soloist, then the
latter moves the discourse onto a higher emotional plateau. Brass and bells
imperiously sound out the basic melodic motif, before the close in a mood of
distanced calm. The second movement, marked Adagio assai, opens with ruminative
piano writing, the orchestra providing an expressive backdrop. Piano, strings
and timpani engage in a more rhetorical discourse, brass injecting an ominous
note, then the piano continues in a tranquil dialogue with solo wind. The
initial mood is at length regained, leading to an ending of rapt inwardness.
The finale, Energico, opens brusquely, proceeding, by way of several
alternately lively and reflective episodes, to a heightened apotheosis in which
ideas from earlier in the work are recalled and transformed. The ending is
again inconclusive, the soloist fading into the distance against gently
ambiguous harmonies from brass and strings.
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