I find Aulis Sallinen’s music maddeningly difficult to come to terms with. Finland’s leading composer, who only really started work in 1970, went through a number of stylistic periods – as all composers from the era did – and also had to come to terms with atonality. He got beyond that hurdle, and began to create a number of symphonies of highly constricted musical reasoning, tight logic, and replete with cellular motives that often serve as building blocks for larger structures and even cross movements (though his first multi-movement symphony is his third, recorded here). Though this description makes it all sound somewhat abstract and intellectual, it really isn’t; Sallinen is a highly emotional composer, one who wears his very distraught and sometimes fragile heart on his sleeve, and the listening experience is not unlike visiting someone in the intensive care unit.
Sounds great, right? But before I turn you off completely, be advised that there is some music of remarkable beauty and poignancy in these pieces. Just listen to the amazing slow movement of the Third Symphony, an incredibly moving chaconne that is shatteringly (and maddeningly) lovely, tragic, and somehow redeeming. But generally speaking the problem is that we never know when these moments of such exquisiteness are going to show up; Sallinen may be treating us to one of his patented streams of musical anger, and then all of a sudden there is something that happens in the orchestra that is so surprising, so revelatory that you stop and listen more carefully. And then–poof! It’s gone, and this is where the frustration sets in.
His Symphony No. 5 was written for and dedicated to the National Symphony under then conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. The “mosaics” subtitle is actually descriptive of the techniques used, as I alluded to above. You can detect symphonic development in this thing, if that is what you like to do, but I found that the five movement spread again finds the composer up to his usual tricks, and I wanted to digitally copy this piece so I could go through and cull together the best parts in order to create my own version–Sallinen’s again is somewhat disconcerting, though there are rewards for the patient.
The German State Philharmonic of the Rheinland-Palatinate plays very well, and Sallinen requires huge, beyond-Mahler forces for these works (quad winds in the Fifth). CPO’s soundstage is for the most part impressive, though I am not sure I didn’t detect a little congestion (or at least a lack of clarity) in some of the more potent passages (something that despite the large orchestra, the composer does not use that often). But I wonder if only SACD might alleviate a problem like that. We shan’t know–opportunity missed in this instance. CPO has only the Sixth Symphony to go to complete the symphonic series, and no doubt this will be a benchmark as it has the imprimatur of the composer himself. This is important music by an important composer, previously known for his operas. Time shall tell whether his importance sustains itself.
— Steven Ritter