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4.6.2017 Feed


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