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26.6.2017 Blog


“The Alpine Symphony is no tourist ad”


In its day, Aarre Merikanto’s orchestral poem Pan was considered ultra-modern. How radical is it actually, compared with other European works of the same age?

Merikanto completed the final version of Pan in 1924. He had been mulling over at least two versions of it in his mind, and it had been subjected to a strict development process. The topic would appear to have been occupying him for some time. Because he had written a song also called Pan in 1916, setting a text by V.A. Koskenniemi. The text of this is pretty fantastic. It goes something like this:

“Oh traveller in the night and wilds / immersed in the forest’s dusky gloomy, / oh in whose breast there burns a wanton lust! / Only the forest’s murky eyes he sees / and the nocturnal shadows as they rise and fall, / and the boughs bent over in the tangled woods / and from his hiding place steps Pan. / To his lips he raises his reed pipe, / he plays, plays a song wild and untamed, / and the forest echoes and echoes to a myriad notes. / But reason deserts the traveller in the night, / wandering in the forest’s dusky maze / and he dreams, he dreams of unbridled happiness.”

This can of course be taken as a lightweight description of the frolics of Pan and Syrinx, but there is also a suggestion of something else in the final lines: of a mind that has lost all reason, of madness. Either may be the case in Merikanto’s orchestral poem, but personally I’m inclined to believe there is something personal lurking behind his ultra-expressionism. This notion, and the idiom of the work suggest two points of comparison to me: Debussy’s Jeux of 1912 and Schönberg’s absolutely hysterical Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (Accompanying Music to a Film Scene) of 1929. Merikanto’s Pan falls between the two in time, so to my mind he is quite close to the European Zeitgeist in his idiom.

There are on the other hand a few strange features in his music. For there are certain general axioms in his orchestration that have not vanished even from 20th-century music. Regardless of style, it has been the custom in composing for orchestra to double melodic figures; for example, a horn may be doubled on a cello, or a viola on a clarinet and cor anglais; in the simplest case, the first and second violins play the same thing an octave apart. It is precisely in such combinations and juxtapositions of timbre that Richard Strauss, for example, is one of the greatest masters. But there are virtually no such doublings in Merikanto. Each of his horizontal gestures – be it a melody, counter-melody or filler note – stands on its own and is not doubled on any other instrument or instrumental group. This is very unusual. Merikanto was, however, a pupil of Reger, who was likewise an extremely clever orchestrator. Was it possible that his other teacher, Vasilenko in Moscow, left him feeling confused, or did Merikanto give Scriabin’s scores only a cursory reading? Or was it deliberate? It is this feature that gives Pan a certain insubstantiality and timbral blurriness. To me, this is one of the strangest and most fascinating pieces in the history of Finland’s music.

It was also typical of Merikanto, as of the other 1920s Modernists (with the possible exception of Klami) that they spent very little time in each musical episode. Their units might last for, say, only four bars. Just as something interesting is beginning, they pass on to something else. Scriabin, whom these composers admired, is often ostensibly fragmentary, but at deeper level the music is far more sustained. It may be that the young Finnish composers were not able to hear new music anywhere, or at least not in Helsinki. They lacked a broader concept of how such music really sounded. Merikanto’s Pan was performed at the Nordic Music Days in Stockholm, where it was ripped to pieces. It was a terrible humiliation for Merikanto. But we can only speculate on how it was performed on that occasion, seeing how difficult it is even today!

So despite its shortcomings, Pan truly was attuned to the times. Even on a European scale it’s a piece that made Sibelius look outdated. 1924 was also the year in which his seventh symphony was premiered, and Tapiola was still in the making. We can only imagine Sibelius listening to Merikanto’s Pan on the wireless at Ainola and wondering what on earth was going on.


What sort of future might Merikanto and his contemporaries have had if their Modernist experiments had not been discredited?

There’s not really much cause for speculation here, because whatever direction 1920s Modernism had taken, it would in any case probably have been cut short by the war. The war and the stagnation that followed were in my view the biggest disaster in the history of Finland’s music. It is of course fully understandable that the arts were not a priority in the post-war reconstruction of society.

The characteristic features of Finnish music were in fact the consequence of “three nationalist aspects”. First, it was Sibelius’s fate to exist in the heady period of national awakening and the early days of independence, when his position got distorted: he became a national symbol, which caused him a terrible trauma. The second tragedy was the Civil War, which made the general climate extremely conservative and nauseating. People swore by the values of hearth, faith and fatherland and regarded marching songs as great art. The third tragedy was then the Winter and Continuation War, after which classical music counted for nothing. For a young musical culture only about fifty years old, these were big demarcation points that inevitably guided trends.

Of the band of Modernists, Merikanto was the one with the greatest potential in the public eye and hence of course the greatest expectations were levelled at him. He was the city-bred son of a famous father and while still young had already attracted a lot of attention with his opera Helena.

Other young composers were not under similar pressure. They came from up-country and no one knew them. Merikanto’s tragedy were the high expectations and nevertheless the need to break with tradition. But no one can really be blamed for the way he was treated, at least not the audiences or musicians, who could not possibly judge the new art. But some of the blame can be placed with the critics.


When you conduct Mozart or other Viennese Classicists, how much do you have to work on questions of style?

I’m a syncretist on such matters and in this respect no doubt a typical representative of my generation. We have all been influenced by the performance practices of the early music fundamentalists; we have picked out whatever suits us best. And I have no problem accepting a modern concert grand for Mozart.

So style is a sort of hybrid. Many of the FRSO musicians play early music on period instruments, and the orchestra regularly collaborates with conductors specialising in the genre. But I think even the ‘early-music conductors’ are beginning to be syncretists to a greater or lesser degree.  Sir Roger Norrington has everything played without vibrato, but musically, even he’s quite a Romantic.

In an orchestra, each player has an opinion on how the music should be played. The discrepancy between different views is greater in Mozart than in Brahms or Strauss. In this sense it’s slightly more work for the conductor to form an overall synthesis of everything the orchestra offers.

The problem in performing Mozart is, to my mind, that the phrases are in a way already early-Romantic, and they should have expression and colour. The expression often vanishes when you start wondering about stylistic authenticity. When I want to listen to Mozart, I choose old recordings by Karl Böhm or Josef Krips. Their renderings let Mozart by strong and sing. And slow, I have to admit. This attitude has been lacking in the past few decades, and to my mind it would make Mozart playing healthier.

In our last interview we talked about Carl Nielsen’s relationship with nature in connection with his fourth symphony. How is this theme manifest in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony?

We seem to have quite a few nature themes on the programme for this season: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Haydn’s Seasons, Nielsen’s Inextinguishable and now Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. This is of course pure coincidence. It’s also a coincidence that the second theme of the first movement of Nielsen’s fourth symphony is almost the same as the sunrise theme in the Alpine Symphony.

The finest thing about the Alpine Symphony is its orchestration. Strauss himself modestly said at a rehearsal for the premiere that he had at last learnt to orchestrate. And indeed – just listen to the way Strauss describes the thunder of the approaching waterfall and then the waterfall itself – harp, celesta, Glockenspiel and string glissandos – it sounds just like a great mass of water hitting a rock. Or the miraculous feeling of space Strauss evokes of an Alpine meadow: the cows and sheep really do seem to be scattered across the meadow. Or the hollow moment after lightning has struck in the storm scene, before the thunder cracks – you can almost count how far away the storm is.

Nielsen’s nature concept is possibly more abstract than Strauss’s. Behind the Inextinguishable is the idea of nature’s renewal, which may serve as a symbol for many other things. But again, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is no tourist ad, even though some take it as one. Many say it’s a clever but empty-headed work. True, the Alpine Symphony is descriptive music; there’s a cow, a glacier and a thunder storm. In the background it nevertheless has an impressive spiritual content: Nietzsche’s Antichrist, the idea of human development and life span and the world’s salvation through the arts and science.

The work becomes increasingly serious as it proceeds. It begins by climbing out of bed and leaping briskly into action. The climax is reached at precisely the mathematical midpoint – Strauss is second to none in building up climaxes. The nature of the piece then changes: next comes a section called Apparition during which the Alpine Symphony becomes an allegory for spiritual human development. Profound works tend to seem lightweight, as with Mozart and Strauss. The last ten minutes of the Alpine Symphony proclaim Strauss’s unwavering faith that there is a potential for goodness in each human being and that the arts are of great significance in identifying that goodness.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo

4.6.2017 Blog


“The ‘Inextinguishable’ is a song of praise to Nature”


You often plan programmes around a theme. But the silver thread running through this concert is not blatantly obvious. Does the programme have one nevertheless?

Listen to the concert first! By no means do I always plan my programme entities very consciously; I think more about colour or feel. A good programme is not necessarily one that looks smart on paper. And when, like today, there’s a premiere on the programme, I can’t even know what’s coming. Sometimes I talk to the composer beforehand. I ask them whether, say, there’s a literary reference behind their forthcoming work, or whether they have any ideas for what else we might play. On the other hand, I don’t want to trouble composers by constantly asking them what they’re going to write.

Now that Fagerlund’s work is ready, I can see that the energy of Nielsen’s symphony and Fagerlund’s music to some extent inhabit the same world. So the Ravel concerto is sandwiched between two works of inextinguishable energy. But this wasn’t particularly premeditated! My guess is that when they’re heard in succession, they’ll balance one another out and the listener will feel satiated.

Sebastian Fagerlund is on a considerable upward curve, and not only in Finland. What makes him such a noteworthy composer?

It’s the same with Fagerlund as it was with Magnus Lindberg 30 years ago: the orchestra is beginning to feel at home with his music. A symbiosis has evolved between Fagerlund and the FRSO that will, we hope, be inspiring for him, too. He’s familiar with the orchestra’s strengths and even when he’s composing, he maybe imagines who he’s writing for, even a specific player.

Sebastian’s music could be described as musician-oriented. The player doesn’t need a pair of compasses, a ruler or a pocket calculator; he can just pitch himself into the music. Drifts is shorter than Fagerlund’s other recent pieces, and it has a slightly different dramaturgy. His works have often had a clear quick–slow–quick construction with the same basic pulse tick-tocking away in the background.

The form of Drifts is somehow amoeban: the listener may have difficulty working out when it’s slow and when it’s quick. Sure, there’s still the same pulse running right through it, but the orchestration and the motif technique sometimes make certain sections sound a lot slower. The sections overlap kaleidoscopically so that the result is in fact a continuum in which the pulse seems to change even though it’s actually the same.

I’ve done so much music by Sebastian now that I’m beginning to see he has tempo fixations in the same way as other contemporary composers whose music has been played a lot by the FRSO. Just like Magnus Lindberg or Kaija Saariaho, for example, Fagerlund has his own characteristic tempo to which all the work’s tempos relate and that are multiples of the initial tempo.

Fagerlund arrived at his characteristic orchestration by traditional, well-tried means, even though his idiom is in fact modern. The lowest material is slower-moving, and the higher it goes, the more we find faster stuff. The slower foundation produces more harmonics and the timbre carries on upwards. In this work, for example, the foundation is a perfect fifth almost throughout. The harmonic base resonates well and the other material is like a topping. This is not actually a modern idea, because the late-Romantics were already using it.

Maurice Ravel said his G-major concerto was influenced by Mozart. How is this manifest?

Ravel did, yes, make specific mention of the slow movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet as the model for the slow movement of his own piano concerto. The connection is not very obvious, but it’s evident in the way the instruments enter, or the main theme is embroidered in the recapitulation. Ravel borrowed ideas about timbre from Mozart in his orchestration and instrumentation. He said he wanted to compose a piano concerto of Mozart and Saint-Saëns type, because these composers are “not so profound”! Only a Frenchman can mention Mozart and Saint-Saëns in the same sentence, and at the same time fail to notice the profundity of the Mozart piano concertos.

The elements of Ravel’s music – the Basque background, the Classical French tradition and the influence of jazz – coexist in sweet organic harmony. The second theme of the first movement of the piano concerto could be Gershwin. Ravel was fascinated by jazz and made use of the opportunity, knowing that the concerto would be going on the American market. Then the ticking material, in which the piano merges to become part of the orchestra, reminds me of Petrushka: they are kindred pieces in their mechanicalness. The brevity of the finale is in turn a Classical trait: it’s the same length as, for example, the Haydn symphony finales lasting just a few minutes.

Ravel wanted to call his G-major concerto a divertissement, and it is indeed possible to detect a certain need to “divert”. Ravel’s concerto is as light as a feather. He composed both his concertos at the same time; they lay side-by-side on his desk. Could it be so that more of the pot marked “grave” splashed into the concerto for the left hand than into this concerto?

As we know, Stravinsky called Ravel a Swiss watchmaker. Was he doing Ravel’s composer persona an injustice?

As a person, Ravel may well have been like that. Maybe Stravinsky was alluding to the dapper, sedate man with his love for clocks and mechanical objects rather than to his music. And the works of Ravel do have a certain precision in the sense that they are deliberated and thought out right down to the finest detail. In his best orchestrated works, such as Le Tombeau de Couperin, Mother Goose and Daphne, the place of every note is considered, nothing is splurged and the tone colours are carefully mixed. Maybe Stravinsky was even envious of Ravel’s self-discipline and stylistic consistence, which Stravinsky did not really seem able to achieve.

How do you relate to the Nielsen symphonies?

I was Chief Conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra for a time, and that of course is Nielsen territory. Nielsen played the violin in the Gothenburg Symphony and that’s not far from Copenhagen, so it regards him almost as one of its own. During my term there, I conducted the third, fourth and fifth symphonies a lot. I haven’t done the others. I like the first two very much, but the sixth is still an enigma for me: it’s such a translucent, strict piece that I’m a bit afraid of attacking it. The fourth symphony is my favourite, and I’ve recently conducted it in Tokyo, Moscow and other places.

The thing that appeals to me in the fourth symphony is its unbridled energy, and also its form, which balances with the energy. Nielsen already had a one-movement symphony in mind in around 1914, in other words at the same time as Sibelius was contemplating this format too, though Sibelius didn’t finally write his seventh symphony until the 1920s. Nielsen’s one-movement format is different, however. It’s reminiscent of the idea of Sibelius’s fifth. The movements don’t have names or numbers, even though it’s clear when they begin and end. Nielsen’s idea of a single movement looks more to the past than Sibelius’s does. Nielsen admired the B-minor sonata by Liszt, which was in turn influenced by late Beethoven. Another model for him was Schönberg’s first chamber symphony, which is also in one movement but divided into recognisable sections.

Another thing that appeals to me in Nielsen is his handling of keys. The way they follow one another is sometimes really strange, but at the same time extremely premeditated and calculated. The modulations and the arrivals at certain main keys cause almost physical reactions.

Nielsen was aware that the ordinary listener, who can’t usually analyse or put a name to things, may nevertheless feel and recognise the harmonic processes. He is really clever at playing with listeners’ expectations, at giving them shocks. In leading up to and arriving at the great climaxes, Nielsen is to my mind a genius, one of the best.

The timpani duel is an absolutely unique piece of instrumentation. It’s not just a great stereophonic effect; it’s unadulterated violence, one of the most aggressive moments in symphonic literature. There’s no point covering this aggressiveness up, though it must of course be sonorous and well played.

I can to a certain extent relate to Nielsen as a person. He was known to be a bit crotchety and impatient and couldn’t abide slowness, but he nevertheless had quite a sense of humour. I’ve seen photos of him as a young man making faces and fooling around. In one famous childhood photo he’s looking serious in army uniform, holding a cornet. The cornet’s almost as big as he is. One feels a bit sorry for him, but at the same time his determination is impressive. I sometimes wonder whether there’s any connection between a composer’s nature and his music, and in Nielsen’s case it seems there is.

What do you think Nielsen meant by “inextinguishable”?

Many think “inextinguishable” means that the symphony doesn’t stop, it keeps rushing ahead. And this it does. But that’s not what’s inextinguishable here; the “Inextinguishable” is a song of praise to Nature, to everything that is renewable. Whatever happens in the world, something new will always begin to grow, water will well from somewhere.

The idea of a Dane describing Nature tends to make Finns smile, because to us, Denmark doesn’t have any “nature”, just flat land, tufts of grass and the odd stream here and there. We think we alone understand the relationship between primeval Nature and humanity.

Sibelius’s concept of Nature is so sacred to us and so frighteningly deep. But we all have our own Nature: it’s there in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony just as in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and the cow mooing in the Alps is just as profound a creature as the age-old Finnish pine somewhere in deepest Karelia.

As a young man, Nielsen spent a lot of time on the island of Fyn and experienced at first hand the wind, the rain and the plants that pushed up through the earth. He saw music as a symbol of this renewal and made his symphony a manifesto to life. The symbolism which the “Inextinguishable” represents means more to me than the fact that this symphony, even musically, does not seem to extinguish.

Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo

4.6.2017 Blog


Hannu Lintu: “There’s a little bit of Joonas Kokkonen in every Finn”


Hannu Lintu – I remember when I was a student, we took it for granted that figures like Joonas Kokkonen, Einar Englund and Erik Bergman were part of the Finnish canon. Yet their music seems to have more or less disappeared from concert programmes. What exactly happened to this generation?

In our student days, these composers were still alive. They were Joonas, Einar and Erik, and we’d see them weekly at maybe the Academy or in the interval of concerts at Finlandia [Hall]. Now they are Kokkonen, Englund and Bergman, and their music is pretty seldom heard. I think it’s a question not only of media sexiness but also that here in Finland people nowadays have a surprisingly narrow view of musical styles.

Very much to the fore in Finland at the moment is a post-avant-gardist trend, meaning the one nowadays represented by the first Korvat auki [Ears Open] generation, for example. These and a few other composers have become the prevailing canon, partly also because they have unquestionably, and deservedly, won international recognition. Finnish musicians, audiences and the media are strongly oriented towards these composers and their music has become the full, and maybe somewhat distorted picture of the present day. Another reason is probably that Finnish society has changed a lot since the 1960s and 70s. This is of course audible in music, and visible in the type of art people value. Urbanisation and Europeanisation are reflected in preferences in every walk of life.

Kokkonen avoided taking a stand on anything in his symphonies. They are unrelentingly objective; yet even so, they are part of the Finnish soulscape at its purest. They still are. In the world we live in today, everything has to be easy to fathom. We like “stories”. A terrible fuss has to be made of everything that was once considered so normal. It’s worst in politics, but the arts haven’t altogether escaped. Kokkonen’s expression and essence are not compatible with this world. Tweeting would have been a nightmare for him, I’m sure.


What sort of symphonic tradition does Kokkonen’s fourth symphony belong to?

Joonas Kokkonen’s technical skill is astounding. All the musical material is based on tiny little cells, just a few notes. This links him with the tradition represented by Beethoven and Sibelius. Kokkonen felt an affinity with Sibelius’s fourth symphony, not only because of its atmosphere but also its mode of composition. This extreme economy is also the reason why Kokkonen’s symphonies last only around 20 minutes. The material just does not lend itself to more, and being a wise composer, he didn’t want to force the structure to be any longer. For Kokkonen, the symphony was a philosophical state of mind rather than a specific form. This, as I understand it, is what he meant by thinking more broadly in saying that symphonies were already being composed before anyone ever invented the term ‘symphony’.

Kokkonen is, to my mind, one of our greatest symphonists since Sibelius. His four symphonies really speak to us Finns but are a challenge internationally: when I try now and then to suggest Kokkonen for a French or American orchestra, I’m met with mute amazement, even animosity. The world of Kokkonen is really difficult for a non-Finn to understand, and it also shows how difficult it may be for others to get inside the Finnish soulscape. Though I said just now that Finland has changed, I have to admit that there’s still a little bit of Joonas Kokkonen in each and everyone of us.


Tonight’s concert ends with the Prokofiev cycle you’re doing with Olli Mustonen. What are your thoughts on the five-concerto project now ending?

It’s been quite an education for me. When Prokofiev wrote his first piano concerto, the critics pointed out that it was like football: a mere stripling in a sailor suit showing how clever he was. Performances of the Prokofiev concertos are indeed often reminiscent of a sort of sporting event. But Olli has demonstrated that Prokofiev doesn’t need to be football or acrobatics. Playing him at a more moderate tempo begins to bring out the ingenious layering of the harmonies and details. For the first time in my career I have felt at ease doing the Prokofiev concertos in this project, and not hysterical as may sometimes be the case. Rehearsing, performing and recording these concertos have in turn also helped us to develop the accompaniments and find the right balance in the Helsinki Music Centre Hall.

The fact that all the works by one composer in a particular genre are performed within a short period of time also counts for a lot. It always reveals something new about the composer. Prokofiev travelled an enormous distance in his five piano concertos, just as in his piano sonatas – or his symphonies. When you yourself travel that same distance, you gain a broader understanding, too.


The second piano concerto is unusual in that Prokofiev wrote it twice.

The first version did indeed burn to ashes in the turmoil of the revolution in 1917 and Prokofiev rewrote it from memory some ten years later. Some people heard both versions, both the performance in Pavlovsky in 1913 and in Paris in 1924, but their accounts are strangely contradictory. Prokofiev was still young when he wrote the new version, but a much more experienced composer. This must be audible in the music. And the situation must surely have been a chance to prove how talented and above all how modern he was at the age of 21, without anyone being able to check things.

The picture of Prokofiev is often that of an obnoxious, spoilt Wunderkind who had everything presented to him on a plate. But there is often something inexplicable in his music, and deep tragedy. The shocking strains of the second piano concerto may have something to do with real events. Because while he was composing it, he received a message from his best friend, Maximilian Schmidthof: “Serioza, some news: I’ve shot myself!” Prokofiev hurried to his friend’s home, but in vain. Schmidthof’s body was not found in the forest until days later. How this tragedy affected the work in progress, and what maybe remained ten years later is difficult to estimate.


Bohuslav Martinů is said to have been a very peculiar person. What, would you say, is the relationship between a composer’s personality and his music? Does it matter to the performer?

Martinů really was a bit peculiar. In retrospect, it’s reckoned he had Asperger’s syndrome. It would appear that he was also permanently injured after falling head first off an upper-floor balcony onto concrete while at Tanglewood. Be that as it may, he was infinitely shy, retiring and antisocial. He suffered from stage fright of the worst possible order and was totally unable to accept congratulations. Nor did he know how to teach: the students in his lectures at Princetown just listened to records, and within six months, all his students apart from Charles Rosen and Michael Steinberg had vanished.

Martinů is, to my mind, one of the very greatest symphonists of the 20th century. Music by him was performed a tremendous lot in the 1940s and 50s, especially in the USA, at times less, but it now seems to be coming back into favour. Living in the United States must have been schizophrenic for him. He secretly hated the country that had rescued him and taken him in as a refugee, and what is more commissioned five symphonies. Many would have become introverted for less.

The music of Martinů is in its own introvert way nevertheless very emotional. This fourth symphony, for example, its mood tying in with the end of the Second World War, is very boisterous, optimistic and sunny. Even so, I get the feeling the composer is trying to hide. There is, as it were, a sort of deliberate wall between the music and the user.


What do the fourth symphonies of Kokkonen and Martinů have in common?

Although the textures differ, there is a strong feeling of horizontality in the music of both. And they both begin composing with little motifs. There’s also something similar in their use of stringed instruments: mighty, broad chorales always follow the great culminations in the movements as soothing gestures. I reckon both had absorbed this device from Shostakovich.

You don’t have to be born in Vienna or Hamburg to be a great symphonist. Martinů came from the village of Polika on the border of Bohemia and Moravia and Kokkonen from Iisalmi. But you can hear the cultural differences: you can tell at once from Martinů’s limping syncopations and colourful dancing that he was a Czech, whereas Kokkonen’s terse, even gait is recognisably a Finnish trait. We may note similar differences in the films of, say, the great Czech director Milos Forman and Aki Kaurismäki.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo