Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (Photo by Martti Kainulainen/AFP via Getty Images)

Unenticing overtures

Rautavaara: 3rd piano concerto (Bis); Overtures from Finland (Chandos)

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★★☆☆☆ / ★★★☆☆

Like Russians at tennis, Finns now predominate in the production of classical music. Finnish conductors command orchestras from San Francisco to Paris, Finnish soloists receive more than their fair share of concerto dates and Finnish composers are extensively promoted. Sadness at the recent death of the exceptional Kaija Saariaho merely magnified the size of the footprint that a marginal nation of five million citizens has planted across an international art form. Finnish musicians are exceedingly well trained and motivated. The question of individual quality is seldom put under the spotlight.

You wonder if a foreign interpreter might proffer greater pungency

Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died in 2016, was the leading composer of the post-Sibelius era. He wrote eight symphonies and several operas, earning headlines with a concerto for birds and orchestra, titled Cantus Arcticus. His third piano concerto, recorded here, is representative of much of his work that I have heard. It meanders genially across an unending tundra of interchangeable notes. Rautavaara has an original tic of seeming to make the soloist play two adjacent notes at once, producing an intriguing edge-of-tonality. The soloist Olli Mustonen and conductor Dalia Stasevska are both Finns, as is the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. You wonder if a foreign interpreter might proffer greater pungency. In the companion third concerto by the Czech Bohuslav Martinu, a post-war work of deep emotion, they rarely approach the net of close engagement.

On Chandos, the British conductor Rumon Gamba has assembled an assortment of Finnish overtures beneath a cover image of a never-setting sun. Sibelius leads with the brilliantly crafted and nationally cohesive Karelia, followed by his conductor pal Robert Kajanus with a bland symphonic overture. Leevi Madetoja’s comedy overture loses the jokes in translation, and Armas Järnefelt (1865–1958), in two pieces, demonstrates why Sibelius was so much taller than his peers. That said, Uuno Klami’s atmospheric Nummisuutarit of 1936 is a real find, and the Oulu Sinfonia is an excellent ensemble. If you’re suffering from summer heat and tennis overload, start here.

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