Overtures from Finland. Oulu Sinfonia / Rumon Gamba. © 2023 Chandos Records

CD Spotlight

Awesome Power

Orchestral music from Finland, strongly recommended by GERALD FENECH

'... energetic performances that consistently engage the listener ...'


From the middle of the nineteenth century there was a blossoming of nationalism within the creative arts - very notably in music - in Finland that reflected the ardent wish for freedom from Russian domination. From an international perspective, the dominant figure of Sibelius can often overshadow the wide-ranging works of his peers - something that this lovely album goes some way to redress.

There is music here from the pens of nine composers, so I think it is fitting to take them one by one, with a tiny bit of information on each and listing at the same time the respective composition.

Robert Kajanus (1856-1933) was the leading figure before Sibelius hit the scene. He was a conductor, composer and teacher. In 1882 he founded the Helsinki Orchestral Society, Finland's first professional Orchestra. As a conductor he was also a notable champion and interpreter of Jean Sibelius's music. His Overtura Sinfonica is a late work dating from 1926 which epitomizes his style.

Listen — Robert Kajanus: Overtura Sinfonica
(CHSA 5336 track 8, 0:01-0:54) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

Armas Järnefelt (1869-1958) was a composer and conductor who achieved some minor success with his orchestral works Berceuse and Præludium. He spent much of his conducting career at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. He was also a friend and fellow student of Sibelius and eventually became his father-in-law. On this album is the Ouverture lyrique and Præludium.

Listen — Järnefelt: Præludium
(CHSA 5336 track 10, 0:00-0:37) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

Erkki Melartin (1857-1937) was a pupil of Martin Wegelius from 1892 to 1899 in Helsinki and of Robert Fuchs from 1899 to 1901 in Vienna. His output is considerable. Indeed, he composed six beautiful symphonies and three evocative suites, apart from a substantial number of works in other genres. Melartin wrote his incidental music for 'Sleeping Beauty' for a production of Zachis Topelius's fairy-tale play at the Finnish Theatre.

Listen — Erkki Melartin: Overture (Prinsessa Ruusunen)
(CHSA 5336 track 3, 0:02-0:46) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

When just ten, Ernst Mielck (1877-1899) started learning the piano. In 1891 he was sent to Berlin where he studied with Max Bruch. The pupil was a fast learner and Bruch praised him for his remarkable sense of invention. Mielck returned to Finland in 1896. Three years later he died of tuberculosis just two days short of his twenty-second birthday. Obviously his output is very lean, but in his very short life he still managed to compose a Symphony in F minor, two concertos - one for piano, the other for violin, a Suite and two Overtures. Mielck was also mentored by Robert Kajanus, who also conducted the premiere of his Dramatic Overture in Helsinki.

Listen — Ernst Mielck: Dramatische Ouvertüre
(CHSA 5336 track 6, 0:02-0:56) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

Selim Palmgren (1878-1951) studied at the Conservatory in Helsinki from 1895 to 1899, then continued his piano studies in Berlin where Busoni was one of his teachers. He conducted choral and orchestral societies both at home and abroad, and made very successful concert tours as a pianist both in Finland and Scandinavia. In 1921 he went to the States, where he taught composition at the Eastman School of Music, later returning to Finland where he died aged seventy-three. His overture from 'The Cinderella Suite' is very colourful and particularly exotic.

Listen — Selim Palmgren: Overture (Tuhkimo-Sarja)
(CHSA 5336 track 7, 0:01-0:33) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

A composer, pianist and teacher, Heino Kaski (1885-1957) is best known for his hundred or more piano miniatures. He also composed numerous chamber works, four orchestral suites and many other pieces in different genres. But most of his time was spent on teaching and this left him with little time for composition. His Prélude is an orchestration of one of his most popular miniatures.

Uuno Klami (1900-1961) studied in Paris and Vienna, and is the only composer on this fascinating programme who embraced modern music. He is widely recognized as one of the most significant Finnish composers to emerge after Sibelius. Born in Virolahti, many of his works are related to the Kalevala legends. He admired French and Spanish music, but his admiration was mainly centred on Ravel's music and style. The overture The Cobblers on the Heath, despite its modern sound world, is brilliantly orchestrated and is full of colour and harmonic ingenuity.

Listen — Uuno Klami: Nummisuutarit
(CHSA 5336 track 2, 7:31-8:19) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) was a composer, music critic, conductor and teacher, who practiced his art between the late Romantic era and early modern period. He is widely recognized as a very significant contemporary of Sibelius under whom he studied privately from 1908 to 1910. His 'Comedy Overture' on this programme is an orchestral tour-de-force with echoes of Richard Strauss.

Leaving the best for the last, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) certainly needs no introduction and his life and career are well documented. Maybe the most vital facts one should keep in mind are what Sibelius did to bring Finnish folklore and legends to the outside world, and how much his music inspired his people to strive for freedom from Russia's despotic yoke. The Karelia Overture is the opening movement of the Suite, Op 10, which is full of descriptive music reflecting the natural beauties of the Karelia region which was so dear to the composer.

These are works that hardly raise an eyebrow when one comes across them, but I was totally surprised by the colour, rhythmic beauty and harmonic ingenuity of much of the music, which is brimming with passionate melodies and vibrant orchestration that is coming right from the heart. Indeed, I felt these composers saying 'This is our Finland which desires to be reckoned with for its musical contribution to Europe. Do give us a chance.'

Rumon Gamba's conducting has a sense of drama that captures all the awesome power of this impressive collation, and his players respond with energetic performances that consistently engage the listener with their immaculate playing. Superb sonics and booklet notes complete a novelty disc that should encourage all music lovers to delve deeper into Finnish music. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 6 August 2023 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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