“Rautavaara Choral Works” – Finnish Radio Sym. Orch./ Finnish Radio Ch. Choir/ Timo Nuoranne, cond./ Eric-Olof Soderstrom, cond./ Helsinki Philharmonic Orch./ Finnish Philharmonic Choir/ Leif Segerstam – Ondine ODE 1186-2Q, (4 CDs) 4+ hours [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This is a fascinating collection of previously released discs of the (mainly) choral music of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928), the leading composer of that country and one of the mainstays in the classical music world today. Noted primarily for his later “angel” titled symphonies that put him in what many call a “synthesis” style of writing, he has become quite popular because of his late works even though his activities go a long way back, and his work in the choral world, though he doesn’t consider himself especially a “choral” composer, is considerable.

We have four discs here that cover a broad span of his choral music, from his early avant-garde experiments like the odd Praktisch Deutsch, a 1969 piece that is based on a setting of sentences from a German phrase book and where strange choral sounds are used to exploit the already-strange practicum of the usage of the book, to his latest and maybe greatest piece, the orchestra/choral treatment of True & False Unicorn, A Tapestry of Voices , set to poems of James Broughton about a co-mixture of animals in varied situations and settings, mythical mixed with the “real”. The work uses a highly eclectic barrage of styles, and though calling the piece a “collage” might be pushing the point, there is certainly that aspect of the score, employing as it does of a variety of popular, jazz, spirituals, musicals, and even national anthems.

One work that stands out is the other major choral effort, Vigilia, commissioned by the Finnish Orthodox Church for performance at the Helsinki Orthodox Cathedral. Rautavaara is not Orthodox, instead a man who considers having an “affinity with infinity” and is broadly ecumenical in his sources, from Lutheran to Roman Catholic to Orthodox. But his fascination with an early trip to the Russian monastery of Valamo on Lake Ladoga stayed with him for many years, and found its outlet in the form of the Russian Orthodox All Night Vigil. Here the composer avoids the excessively sentimental styles that crept into Russian Orthodox music in the 1800s, and focuses instead on its Byzantine roots. The results quite frankly are mixed; the music is definitely more astringent than what the Helsinki audience was used to hearing and the work is not really designed for church use as its demands are formidable, and it lacks the ethos that makes Byzantine chant work so well, like an outsider trying to imitate it. It’s a fascinating piece, but ultimately not very appetizing.

To the contrary is the 1997 work On the Last Frontier, A Fantasy for Chorus and Orchestra, a wonderfully late romantic piece full of Straussian melodies and dense, rich harmonies. The text is taken from a Finnish translation of the story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe, a tale of adventure with a “mystic” ending that attracted the composer. It is a piece that should be heard more often in concert halls.

These discs are logically organized into four distinct sections: Disc 1, Vigilia; 2, hymns and Roman Catholic liturgical settings; 3, secular songs and other non-religious settings; and 4, On the Last Frontier and True & False Unicorns. While I can’t recommend this set wholeheartedly because a lot of the music is variable, and this is hardly a “greatest hits” collection, it does have some real jewels in it, especially discs 2 & 4, with some excellent selections on 3, and one can’t doubt the importance of Vigilia as his largest choral piece even though it doesn’t have a lot of surface attraction. I would recommend starting with this Hyperion release in order to get a sampling before attempting to stretch into the more esoteric music that makes up part of this collection, though at $34 this is quite a bargain.

Vigilia; Credo; Canticum Mariae virginis; Herran Rukous – The Lord’s Prayer; 2 Psalms; Magnificat; Nattvarden – Communion; Ave Maria; Missa Duodecanonica; Rakkaus ei koskaan häviä – Charity Never Faileth; Legenda – Legend; Marjatan jouluvirsi – Marjatta’s Christmas Hymn; Joulun virsi – Christmas Hymn; Avuksihuutopsalmi – Psalm of Invocation; Ehtoohymni (Evening hymn); Canción de nuestro tiempo – Song of Our Time; Halavan himmeän alla – In the Shade of the Willow; Lähtö/Departure; Morsian/The Bride; Praktisch Deutsch; Och glädjen den dansar; Sommarnatten; Katedralen/The Cathedral; Lorca Suite Op. 72; Ludus verbalis; Nirvana Dharma; Die erste Elegie; On the Last Frontier; True & False Unicorn

—Steven Ritter