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ClassicsOnline Home » Early One Morning - Finnish Orchestral Favourites
Finnish Orchestral Favourites
Early One Morning
On these two CDs, the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and Camerata Finlandia conducted by Jorma Panula perform some of the best-known, best-loved Finnish orchestral pieces. The selection includes composers whose music is frequently performed in Finland and abroad. There is no question as to who is the top Finnish composer: Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), whose symphonies and Violin Concerto are among the most important Finnish orchestral works ever written. Of his other works, we can mention Finlandia and Valse triste. Written at the end of the 19th century, Finlandia (CD 1 track 1) became an important symbol of Finland’s struggle for independence, and it remains an epitome of all things Finnish, both in its original orchestral guise and in the choral version of the hymn section, with lyrics later provided by V.A. Koskenniemi. Valse triste (CD 1 track 5), which Sibelius wrote in 1903, has travelled all over the world in a multitude of arrangements, making his name known as no other work of his has done. The enchantingly beautiful Andante festivo (1922) (CD 1 track 18) has graced many a solemn occasion, and the theme of this work, originally written for string quartet, is familiar to all music lovers. Like many artists of his time, Sibelius was interested in the Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala, and wrote many compositions on subjects from it, such as Tuonelan joutsen (The Swan of Tuonela) (CD 1 track 15). This marvellous work for cor anglais (English horn) solo and strings belongs to the Lemminkäinen Suite, the material for which stems from the composer’s plan to write an opera entitled Veneen luominen (The Creation of the Boat). Tuonelan joutsen was intended to be the overture.
Sibelius held a life-long interest in writing music to plays. His Kurkikohtaus (Scene with Cranes) (CD 2 track 5) is part of the incidental music to the play Kuolema (Death) written by his close friend Arvid Järnefelt. The incidental music of Sibelius reflects the composer’s interest in portraying Symbolism in music: going deeper and deeper into the text of the play. Sydämeni Laulu (The Song of My Heart) (CD 2 track 9) is a small masterpiece. It is one of Sibelius’s best-known choral works, based on a text by Aleksis Kivi. Inspired by the birth of the composer’s daughter, Kirsti, in 1898, it is also a landmark of her illness and premature death at the age of one. Sibelius played this song on the piano next to her deathbed. The Impromptu (CD 2 track 14) is from a set of six piano pieces op 5. In the Impromptu, it is possible to hear influences from the folk music of Eastern Finland and Karelia as well as from the national instrument, the ‘kantele’ (a zither-like instrument). The composer had spent some time in Karelia collecting old folk songs and getting to know the nature and origins of Finnish folk music. The Impromptus belong to the core repertoire of Finnish piano music. The last piece on this compilation, Elegia, (CD 2 track 18) was written for a play by Adolf Paul, a writer closely associated with the composer. In 1898, Sibelius quickly wrote a set of four pieces for the play King Christian II (8.570068). Elegia, the opening piece, is one of the most beautiful mood pieces written by Sibelius.
Sibelius’s pupil Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947) attained great success with his opera Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnians), premiered in 1935—it was considered then the first significant Finnish-language opera. By then, he had already acquired something of a reputation with his Elegia jousiorkesterille (Elegy for Strings) (CD 1 track 2), a Romantic orchestral work that remains popular to this day.
Perhaps the Finnish composer most widely known and highly regarded in his lifetime was Oskar Merikanto (1868–1924). His melodic inventiveness and easily
accessible style of writing have made Merikanto’s music popular, narrowing the gap between classical music and the greater public. The piano works of
this musical polymath spread from home to home like wildfire. Jorma Panula has written orchestral arrangements of Merikanto’s Romance (CD 1 track 3)
and Valse lente (CD 1 track 4). Nearly everyone was (and is) familiar with his songs, for instance Onnelliset (The Happy Ones) and Kesäillan valssi (Waltz of the Summer Evening), and the religious songs Kiitos sulle, Jumalani (Thanks to thee, my God) and Oi muistatko vielä sen virren (Dost thou remember the hymn we sang). His Kansanlaulu (Folk Song) (CD 2 track 3) presented here is based on a duet. Kesäillan idylli (A Summer Evening Idyll) (CD 2 track 13) portrays the unique atmosphere of a Finnish summer’s day. Merikanto also wrote other National Romantic works with the same theme.
Heikki Aaltoila (1905–1992) wrote music for 150 plays and over 75 films; some of his works became nearly as popular as Merikanto’s, particularly his best-known tune, the now evergreen Akselin ja Elinan häävalssi (Wedding Waltz of Akseli and Elina) (CD 1 track 6), which he wrote for the film version of Täällä Pohjantähden alla (Here Beneath the North Star) directed by Edvin Laine.
Perhaps the most popular sacred work on this compilation is Suomalainen rukous (A Finnish Prayer) (CD 1 track 19) by Taneli Kuusisto (1905–1988), a composer known for his choral and vocal music. This setting of a poem by Uuno Kailas has remained popular over the decades by virtue of both its music and its touching lyrics. It was premiered on the eve of the tragic Helsinki bombings in 1939, which brought more relevance and power into the lyrics. Through radio it was
performed in connection with the news from the war front. On this compilation, the work is played in an orchestral arrangement by Jorma Panula.
Heino Kaski (1885–1957) built his reputation solely on his popular lyrical piano compositions, one of the best-known of which is the Prelude in G flat major (CD 1 track 7). The composer himself arranged this piece for orchestra, and it became his most popular orchestral work. In a sense, Kaski can be considered a successor to Merikanto as a composer of melodic miniatures. Even though he also wrote larger works (e.g. a symphony), his miniatures, filled with atmosphere, have made his name live on. Vuorenpeikkojen iltasoitto (The Goblins’ Tattoo) (CD 2 track 4), originally composed as a piano piece, is one of his most popular miniatures. We might mention as a curiosity that Kaski died on the same day as Sibelius.
Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) holds a sort of cult status among living Finnish composers; his output is extensive and highly original. His first numbered work
was the piano suite Pelimannit (Fiddlers) (CD 1 tracks 8–12), derived from folk music material. It is still one of his most frequently played works, in both its original version and in the orchestral version heard here.
Erkki Melartin (1875–1937) was a key figure on the Finnish musical scene, not just as a highly rated composer but as a teacher and the rector of the Helsinki Music Institute. He wrote not only ’serious’ music but ’lighter’ music for the stage. The folk song Orvon huokaus (The Orphan’s Lament) (CD 2 track 11) is also known by other alternative names, such as Iltalaulu (Evening Song). It was collected by Melartin, who collected some 200 Karelian folk songs from his hometown Käkisalmi (today Priozersk, and part of Russia), a city which was at this time part of Finnish Karelia. Melartin wrote a great number of works in different genres: symphonies, operas and ballet music, chamber music, songs, even schlager music (a music style that combines influences of popular and folk music). His musical language varies from folk music and late-Romanticism to Impressionism and Expressionism. The Kehtolaulu (Berceuse) (CD 2 track 16) was originally a piano piece, one of the hundreds that Melartin wrote. His best known work is in fact the incidental music to the fairy-tale play Prinsessa Ruusunen (The Sleeping Beauty) that includes many classical evergreens. Presented here are the charming Perhosvalssi (Butterfly Waltz) (CD 2 track 12) and the impressive Juhlamarssi (Festive March) (CD 1 track 14) which has been the wedding march of choice for countless Finnish couples.
Equally popular in this respect is the Häämarssi (Wedding March) of Toivo Kuula (1883–1918) (CD 1 track 13). His music is deeply rooted in the culture of his home region, Ostrobothnia. Initially, the talented and versatile Kuula was regarded as one of the composers most likely to measure up to Sibelius’s stature, and he was well on the way to fulfilling these hopes in terms of popularity when he was killed in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War. This was a grievous blow to Finnish music. Kuula specialised in the folk music tradition, collecting nearly 300 folk songs in the region in 1907. On this compilation, we hear two of Kuula’s folk song discoveries: Lampaan polska (The Sheep’s Polska) (CD 2 track 6) and Eteläpohjalainen kansanlaulu (An Ostrobothnian Folk Song) (CD 2 track 15).
Sibelius cast his shadow over the career of many a promising composer, not least that of Armas Järnefelt (1869–1958), who decided to concentrate on his
conducting career. He nevertheless wrote many excellent pieces, the most popular of which are the Prelude for Orchestra (CD 1 track 16) and above all the
melancholy Kehtolaulu (Berceuse) (CD 1 track 17), mostly played by violin and piano but subsequently known in numerous arrangements all over the world.
Making music at home was common at the turn of the century, and many composers, including Sibelius, wrote minor pieces for amateur musicians for that purpose.
The second disc starts with a work by Vilho Luolajan-Mikkola (1911–2005), a Finnish composer known in his homeland for his songs. Häätanhu (Wedding Dance) (CD 2 track 1) was originally a song written to a text by the Finnish poet Yrjö Jylhä.
The musical history of Finland does not have much to tell about Edith Sohlström (1870–1934). Yet, her beautiful Elegia (Elegy) (CD 2 track 2) is one of the most frequently performed cello works in the country.
Konsta Jylhä (1910–1984) was a pioneer of Finnish folk music who came from a family of folk musicians. Jylhä was extremely skilled as a violinist and wrote several well-known folk songs as well as spiritual music. Konstan parempi valssi (Konsta’s Better Waltz) (CD 2 track 7) was one of his first attempts in the field of composition and also one of the favourites of the general public.
The folk song Aamulla varhain (Early One Morning) (CD 2 track 8) is an old song with uncertain origins. Some sources suggest it may have been written by Lauri Hämäläinen (1832–1888), the organist of the Helsinki Cathedral. However, the melody was already collected and written down by B. A. Paldani in 1852. German-born Fredrik Pacius (1809–1891) wrote the patriotic Suomen laulu (Song of Finland) (CD 2 track 10) to a poem by Emil von Qvante. It was sung by a chorus of university students when Tsar Alexander II visited Helsinki in 1856. Together with the national anthem of Finland, Maamme (Our Land), also
composed by Pacius, it is one of the most remarkable patriotic works of the nation. The composer is told to have exclaimed at a concert: ‘Why, have I really
written something as beautiful as this?’
Selim Palmgren (1878–1951) was an internationally well-known pianist, occasionally described as the ‘Chopin of the North’. His impressive collection of piano compositions (some 300 in total) is very versatile, containing piano concertos, sonatas as well as salon pieces. His Illusion (CD 2 track 17), originally for the piano, used to be one of Palmgren’s most popular pieces. Yet, for decades it stood forgotten, because it was not printed.
Annotations by Ralf Hermans (English translation by the English Centre, HKI) and Joel Valkila (English translation by Joel Valkila & Tia Svanberg).
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Early One Morning - Finnish Orchestral Favourites