Finnish conductor Einojuhani Rautavaara is enigmatic. His music straddles the line between tonal and atonal, as he dabbled with serialism in the early part of his career, but later discovered his own voice, hyper-romantic and even mystical. I find it hard to describe his music, and compare it to Toru Takemitsu, another composer whose sound world is unique.
Rautavaara’s music is not an easy listen at first, as you need to adapt to his approach, often with complex orchestrations. Born in 1928, he has composed eight symphonies and 12 concertos, along with a number of operas, choral works, and other compositions. The Finnish label Ondine has released dozens of CDs with his works, and there are two low-priced box sets which serve as a perfect introduction to Rautavaara’s music. (I just wish Ondine’s discography were a bit clearer. Some of these works are available on several different CDs, and if you want to try and get all of this composer’s music, it’s not simple.)
The most interesting concert is certainly Cantus Arcticus, his Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, which is an orchestra playing along with a tape recording of arctic bird song. This work manages to bring together two different types of sound it a surprising way. The four discs in this set are organized by type of instrument, and each disc makes a nice hour-long program of Rautavaara’s music.
The 8 Symphonies (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is also a four-disc set covering all of the composer’s symphonic works. Rautavaara does not follow any standard template of symphonies, and the works change greatly as he evolves. Presented in chronological order, this is a good way to discover how the composer changed over the years.
And his choral works, also available in a 4-disc box set, are intriguing. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I’m not usually partial to modern choral music; I find it often sounds contrived, as if it’s just copying a sort of modern choir sound, trying to achieve a texture with dissonance and chromaticisms. Rautavaraa’s choral music, however, grabs me in a way that I didn’t expect.
Rautavaara also composed a number of operas, which I don’t care for, but another two-disc set of his Complete Works for String Orchestra (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is worth checking out if you find you like his music.
If you’re interested in discovering a composer who doesn’t easily fit in a box, you might want to take a chance on one of these sets. Rautavaraa’s music isn’t for every one, but you might feel, as I do, that this is a sound world that has much to say.
Note: If you’re curious as to how his name is pronounced, go here.
Update: Rautavaraa passed away in July, 2016. Here’s a link to his obituary in the Guardian.