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CD Review

Osmo Tapio Räihälä

Peat, Smoke & Seaweed Storm

  • Soliloque 2 - La tornade 1
  • Aflao Highway 2
  • Barlinnie Nine 3
  • Rautasade 4
  • Ardbeg 4
1Jukka Harju, horn
2Matilda Kärkkäinen, piano
3Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oromo
4Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dima Slobodeniouk
Alba ABCD367
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The trenchant notes that come with this CD of five works by contemporary Finnish composer, Osmo Tapio Räihälä (who was born in 1964), start: "A composition is not the same as its source of inspiration." That will not stop you wondering about both the unusual title and these impressive individual items for orchestra. Lovers of single malt Scotch whisky won't be puzzled for long. The major theme is indeed Scottish; the minor ones West African car sticker culture, and cosmic phenomena. The question which Räihälä, Alba and the musicians who perform these pieces – extremely well, in fact – have set themselves is: Does the music live up to the concept?

Barlinnie is a prison in Glasgow; nine the number on the shirt worn by footballer Duncan Ferguson, who served time there for a series of… "misadventures" which represent "an apotheosis of underachievement" to the composer. Räihälä has composed a series of six soliloquies as a suite; Soliloque 2 – La tornade is to a commission by French horn player, Jukka Harju, and evokes the kind of unrelenting Atlantic storms that assault the Hebrides. Indeed, the sounds of a storm surrounding the recording venue for this CD have been left in unedited so as to add to the impact; they do not intrude. Similarly, Rautasade ("Iron Rain") may allude to the severity of storms experienced in the same part of the world (the Isle of Islay) where one of the most intensely-flavored of all single malts is produced by the Ardbeg distillery. It's an atmospheric place nicely conjured up by the longest (and last) work on the CD. It's the piece that seems to exemplify Räihälä's greatest strengths. In a restrained yet unapologetic assault one detects the British pastoral composers and Elgar, Britten and even Slavic determination. The orchestral color benefits from the contrast between force and lull. One is left with wet ears. But welcomes the wash.

Although not descriptive, Aflao Highway for piano again transforms into music the essence, impact, and – no pun intended – distillation of place and experience of a series of episodes from the composer and his companions when traveling in Africa. They're of the border-crossing journey made several times by Räihälä between Ghana and Benin along the road of that name; it incorporates the response of other drivers to that trying trip. Once more, the music stands in its own right.

These pieces by Räihälä can be seen as extending the development which composers like Rautavaara (have) made to the sheer power to convey scenes, atmospheres, places; they build on the visual and the experiential of Sibelius' tone poems. As with the earlier composer(s), the starting points seem necessary to honor the experiences which Räihälä had, and which he felt he must make something of. He is an avowedly visual composer. And, although no two listeners could ever possibly see the same as he does, if what he wrote evokes a response based on at least the imagination of the listeners, then he would say he has succeeded.

The music's drive, sense of purpose and – like the insistent music of, say, Esa-Pekka Salonen – unapologetic hurry ensure that communication is broad and unflagging. The listener is drawn in in very specific ways: through anticipation, release, relief, tension. The performers here live up to that urgency. No virtuosic dilettantism. But plenty of vigor and momentum.

There isn't a bar in this 65 minutes of music which doesn't have that tempered angularity that at times it seems only the current generation of Finnish composers knows how to achieve. Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho are other such examples of those who write this way so well. No wandering, nothing superfluous. Nothing, either, for effect or to hold back, for that matter. A happy blend of concealed delicacy and force. The music is essentially tonal, yet neither dreary nor slavish. It says what it has to say; and no more, no less. There is enough originality, variety and sheer inventiveness in each of these pieces for them to take their place alongside other music produced by the remarkable Finnish "Renaissance" of the last couple of generations. Orchestras like the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductors like Sakari Oromo must derive some of their confidence from familiarity with this immense momentum. Yet they are all perceptive and professional enough not to (need to) "freewheel"; they attend only to the music in hand, building and honoring it for what it is, not that of which it is redolent.

So, Yes, these concepts are translated, refined and "rectified" to use another epicurean term into music. That music is valid in its own right. Nowhere more than in Aflao Highway for solo piano can Räihälä be said to have achieved the transition more successfully. Matilda Kärkkäinen quickly pulls you into a world of (implied) complexity worthy of Ives or Scriabin. In its focused unity of sound-world, the solo piano conveys a much wider palette of rush, reminiscence, reticence, risk and resolution.

The acoustics on the CD – taken from recordings made in 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2014 at various locations in Finland – amply support the achievement of balance which Oromo and Slobodeniouk needed between raw atmosphere, the musical centers, and aural concentration to make the experience a musical, rather than a purely mental one. The booklet (with text in English and Finnish) uses Räihälä own words persuasively and with appropriate immediacy to set the scene for his ideas and works; and brief bios to the performers. This CD is recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey