Philharmonia Orchestra London
Finland only gained independence in 1917, but the Kalevala, a collection of orally transmitted myths compiled in the 19th century, had become an important reference point of national identity long before the attainment of sovereignty. Jean Sibelius based his Kullervo on texts from the Kalevala and attempted in this choral cantata to fashion a vocal style that assimilated Finnish speech rhythms. Quoting folk music, however, was of little interest to the composer whose works would make a profound and lasting impression on Finnish national music, and early in his career he stated that “a composer who is thoroughly soaked in the folk music of his homeland must, of course, have quite a different perspective on the subject, must emphasize quite different things, must seek his satisfaction in the art in quite different ways from the others. Therein lies a great deal of his originality. In his work he should – especially as regards the means of expression – eschew local colour as much as possible.”
The Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen belongs to the first generation of composers to have emerged consistently, convincingly and completely from the overwhelming shadow of Sibelius. Together with Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg and a number of other composers, he founded Korvat auki! (Ears Open!), an association for the performance of contemporary music from Finland and abroad. Salonen, Saariaho and Lindberg are now leading figures of the musical scene, definitive proof that Finnish music has much more to offer than Sibelius. Salonen’s Violin Concerto was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic – which Salonen headed and inspired from 1992–2009 – and soloist Leila Josefowicz. “I decided to cover as wide a range of expression as I could imagine over the four movements of the Concerto: from the virtuosic and flashy to the aggressive and brutal, from the meditative and static to the nostalgic and autumnal.” This is the composer’s modest description of a musical cosmos that awakens associations with the human pulse, sunrises, the California coast and the urban hustle and bustle.
In his Geharnischte Suite (“Armoured Suite”), premiered in Berlin in 1897, Ferruccio Busoni evokes a kind of heroic myth from the age of chivalry. The composer dedicated the work to his Finnish colleague and friend in Helsinki, where he taught piano at the music academy from 1888 to 1890. The first movement, “Prelude”, is dedicated to Sibelius, and Busoni’s dedication cites the city’s Swedish name, Helsingfors. Swedish was the language of Finland’s social elite; it was also Sibelius’s mother tongue.