|Site review by Geohominid July 24, 2012
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|Surely, by now everyone has heard of the magnificent and much-recorded Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra from the south-west of Finland. They are a string band of 19 members (plus in this case a harpist). One of the world's top chamber orchestras, the OCO started off from a children's orchestra in 1971, constituted and directed by the young violist/conductor Juha Kangas. Although there are no original members still in the OCO, Kangas still conducts most of their concerts, and the orchestra can still claim to be a young one, with an average age of about 30.
Kangas has a genius for programme-making. This is one of his best efforts, and a companion to his popular "Portraits" SA-CD (Portraits - Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Kangas). Under the title "Fiddler's Spring", Kangas presents a collection of mostly little-known pieces for string orchestra which, with one exception, are concerned with folk music, particularly spotlighting fiddlers. In this treasure-trove, there are a number of attractive trinkets and with real jewels embedded.
Just to remind listeners, Gustav Holst, nowadays always thought of as an English composer, has Nordic roots, as his grandfather came from Riga, Latvia in 1802. Gustav's English folk-tunes came not from his heritage but from Vaughan-Williams, and soon found their way into his St Paul's Suite Op. 29, an entertainment for the opening of a new music block at the St Paul's Girls School in London, where Holst was a teacher. Its movements seamlessly weave several folk songs at different time-signatures. The most famous example of this is in the fourth movement (The Dargason), where a repetative jig is first underlain then overlain by the instantly recognisable song 'Greensleeves" in a long-flowing river of melody. Kangas has nothing to fear from Hickox here; even with a smaller ensemble - in fact Kangas makes the fiddle style itself more pointed, although his tempi are very similar to Hickox's.
From the clarity of Holst's diatonic harmonies we are next plunged into Rautavaara's Op. 1, 'The Fiddlers'. His first movement portrays a group of famous Finnish fiddlers arriving in a procession full of colour and rustic pomp in ruggedly dissonant harmonies more suggestive of the band in tuning. Other atmospheric movements include a fiddler playing alone to the forest in the strange light of a midsummer night, an portrait of a village organist improvising on Bach themes in the village church, a scene with a melancholy devil sitting on a rock listening to the dark forest and a final jumping, stamping dance of magical fiddlers.
Lars-Eric Larsson (1908-1986) was one of the more conservative Swedish composers, but his 'Folk-song Night' of 1941 is a neoclassical delight, song-full and elegaic in a style which could well have been Grieg's. Tore Rangström (1884-1947), another Swede, was a little more progressive. His Suite 'Fiddler's Spring' identifies with the fiddler and his carefree roving free life, although one which could be dangerous. This is a deeply felt and very beautiful piece, ending with a demonic fury and intense drama which is thrillingly caught by the Ostrobothnian fiddlers themselves.
At the heart of this programme is placed a work by Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008), a Finn from the North, who is a composer in residence for the OCO. Having fallen under the spell of folk-music as a young man, he returned to it in a recent work, 'Pictures of Rural Past (2006). Here, the composer looks back to a country which he views as having crumbled under the pressure of integration and standardisation. The first movement is a despairing Dirge, recalling the time when music was said to have the magic power to let one travel from one world to the next. Hauntingly evocative, with wonderful new textures and harmonic sequences, this clearly touches the Ostrobothnian player's hearts. The second movement, 'Youth's farewell on departing to America' recalls the fate of some 300,000 Finnish emigrants in music as black and deep as all the cares of the World. The finale is more optimistic, with a solo fiddler playing what could well be Celtic tunes, leading into a cheerful jig with many cross rhythms - insistently foot tapping.
Moving to Hungary, Léo Weiner (1885-1960) had a passion for folk-music, fuelled by this friends Bartók and Kodály. His Divertimento for Strings Op. 20 (1923) is a delightful kaleidoscope of regional songs and dances, in turns elegant, rowdy and winsome. Often unmistakeably Hungarian, it clearly needs a dancer as well as strings!
Ending the disc, is a piece by the little-known Rudolf Tobias (1878-1918), an Estonian who spent much of his career in Russia. The slow movement of his second string quartet, 'Night-Music' has been transcribed for string orchestra by a fellow Estonian composer, Edvard Tubin. In some ways reminiscent of Barber, this is a touchingly inward communing, lyrical and thoughtful. It blossoms into a gentle dance, then returns to the solace of night thoughts accompanied by shivering bows. Most affecting.
The expressive brilliance of the orchestra, its crisp ensemble, transparent instrumental layering and powerful bass are fully on display here, caught by an exemplary recording with a wide frontal sound stage of the orchestra giving great immediacy, while projecting the string tone into an airy acoustic. Just the right amount of information about the music and artists is given in the English and Finnish booklet.
This programme is more than the sum of its parts; it tells something of the history of folk-music and its relationship to development of nationhood; shows off the communality of folk art in widely disparate countries, tells us something of the life of itinerant musicians and, above all, it is great entertainment.
Snap it up!
Copyright © 2012 John Miller and SA-CD.net