In recent years UK media have been celebrating so-called ‘Scandi-noir’ crime shows and fiction. As usual, this focus on Nordic countries hasn’t generally extended as far as music. I’ve been listening again recently to Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Finnish composer who died at the age of 87 at the end of July. According to Guy Rickards’ Guardian obituary he wrote eight symphonies, nine operas, 12 instrumental (and one choral) concertos, plus a wide variety of orchestral, chamber, instrumental, choral and vocal works.
He had an interesting development as a composer, gradually re-embracing tonal music in a neo-romantic style which by the end of the C20th made him Finland’s most well-known composer since Sibelius. There was a mystical side to his music and outlook, and references to angels occur in a number of his pieces (and this long before angels were made fashionable by New Age spirituality).
Like many, I discovered him through accidentally catching his Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) on the radio. This haunting 20 minute three-movement piece features the orchestra playing melancholic and reflective music over a tape of birds recorded at the Arctic Circle. You can find it on a Naxos budget CD along with his Piano Concerto and Third Symphony. The symphony has long been a favourite of mine, sounding like a compressed Bruckner with strong Sibelian overtones. Initially I couldn’t make much of the Piano Concerto, but I’ve revisited it recently and now greatly enjoy it, and I can also recommend the first movement of his Symphony 1.
Discovering Rautavaara came at a significant moment for me, because it was a reassurance that my intended journey into C20th classical music would turn up many gems. And so it has proved over the past 18 years.