Northern Lights
Cheremissian Fantasy
Kalevala Suite

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgårds, conductor
Samuli Peltonen, cello

Ondine

Conductor John Storgårds leads an ear-opening account of music by Uuno Klami with the Helsinki Philharmonic, the very orchestra that premiered all the works found on this program. Klami (1900-1961) was, we are told, very much a cosmopolitan in his outlook, and was influenced by the new music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and the Russians from Rimsky-Korsakov on. You couldn’t tell it from the present CD offering by Ondine. The music here is highly nationalistic, Romantic in mood and orchestration, and inevitably redolent of Jean Sibelius, who maintained his resolute silence during most of Klami’s active career as a composer. Thereby hangs a tale.

The catalyst for the older style to which Klami reverted in the trio of symphonic masterworks heard here was none other than Robert Kajanus, founder and chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and the figure most responsible for making it a world class orchestra. An ardent patriot at a time when Finland had wrested its long-sought independence from Russia following the downfall of the Romanovs and was ever vigilant to keep that freedom, Kajanus used all his persuasive powers to convince Klami that the inspiration Sibelius had derived from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, was far from spent, and that it was still possible to “score a victory on the old fields of glory.”

That is what we hear on this program, the nationalistic and discretely romantic side of Uuno Klami, rather than the international and modernist. Beginning historically with the Cheremissian Fantasy (1931) for solo cello and orchestra, in which Klami used two alleged folk melodies of the Cheremis, a people distantly related to the Finns who lived in the northern reaches of the Volga. Klami expanded the ranges of the fixed-length pentatonic melodies to give himself more flexibility, and he wrote scintillating music for the solo cello. It is played here by Samuli Peltonen, one of Finland’s finest young musicians, who really shines when the cello breaks out with a mighty burst into the final, most virtuosic section of the piece.

Revontulet (Northern Lights, 1946) is a beautiful example of less=more scoring in an elegantly conceived celebration of the well-known phenomena in the Nordic sky. Some critics at the time of its premiere expressed disappointment that the orchestration wasn’t more colorful, which ignored Klami’s purpose in depicting, in his own words, “an expression of the infinite loneliness of the human spirit.” The oscillation of the orchestral colors in this piece, trailing off into silence at the end, achieves the purpose admirably.

Klami’s masterpiece, The Kalevala (1943) unfolds as a series of tableaux celebrating the origin of the cosmos and the assertion of the human element, as depicted in the Finnish folk epic. The masterfully scored first tableau, Creation of the Earth, moves from the inertia of the cold, primeval void to the glorious moment when the planet comes into being. The Sprout of Spring (couldn’t someone have come up with a better translation for Keväan oras?) is more lushly scored, as befits the subject, while Terhenniemi is a fleet-footed scherzo that captures the mood of folk dancing in a meadow on a summer’s day. Cradle Song for Lemminkäinen is a lullaby for the infant child. Its dignified but austerely melancholy mood clearly tells us (a) that Lemminkäinen is destined to become a great hero and (b) he would be well advised not to invest in the futures market. Finally, in The Forging of the Sampo, Klami brought all the power of the orchestra (and in particular, the sensational hammer-strokes from the percussion section) to bear on themes derived from old Finnish runo tunes as he celebrated the decisive moment when man’s creative energy and resourcefulness made its impact on the world. The Sampo of the title is a cornucopia, and its forging is emblematic of what archaeologists call the “Neolithic revolution,” when advances in agriculture and technology made permanent human communities possible. Thus we end a long journey from initial twilight to bold physical action.

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