Lake Lammasjärvi © Stefan Bremer
Lake Lammasjärvi
© Stefan Bremer
“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind” – Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

We spend countless hours agonising about time: how to spend time, how to save time, how time catches up – and overtakes – us. Time is a thread which runs through the 2015 Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival and it fascinates Vladimir Mendelssohn, Artistic Director since August 2005: “Time equals past, present and future. Time is a harsh judge of quality which saves only artistic achievements larger than life. Time is a bodyless ghost which can be felt only when listening to the several hours of Parsifal or a 30 second piece by Webern. Time is our foe and friend who flows around, before and behind our life, ahead of our mortal passions and behind our of immortal ones, like Vivaldi s Four Seasons, Da Vinci, Michelangelo or Mahler’s nine confessions called symphonies.” In putting together the packed programme of more than 73 recitals in just 14 days, Mendelssohn has created themed days which explore different aspects of time, seasons, clocks and conflict.

Danel Quartet at Kuhmo Church © Juuso Westerlund
Danel Quartet at Kuhmo Church
© Juuso Westerlund

Nestled on the east of Finland, not far from the Russian border, Kuhmo is surrounded by forests and some 600 lakes. Concerts take place in six different venues, but are mostly centred on Kuhmo Arts Centre, with its excellent acoustics, attracting thousands of music lovers from Finland and abroad.

There is a healthy mixture of established classics and unusual repertoire, which means that even the most devoted classical enthusiasts will make new discoveries. Each year, a huge number of musicians – many at the start of their career – descend on Kuhmo. Some chamber groups, such as the Storioni Trio, feature, but most ensembles are formed from the individuals who are invited to perform. How does Mendelssohn create these musical line-ups? “Based on the strongest qualities of my brilliant colleagues and avoiding their lesser ones if those exist,” he explains. “Being able to coexist in a group with a life expectation of three rehearsals and a performance is a challenge which comes to my mind too!”

“Es werde Licht” – “Let there be light!” In Haydn’s The Creation, the soft pizzicato followed by a fortissimo C major chord on the word “Light” is one of the most thrilling C major chords in all music. “First light” is the theme of Kuhmo’s opening concert, which features works including Mahler’s Urlicht (Primeval light), Debussy’s Clair de lune and Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata which, in Italian, is known as “Aurora” (Dawn) on account of the opening chords of the third movement.

Daniel Rowland © Juuso Westerlund
Daniel Rowland
© Juuso Westerlund

On 13th July, music is explored across the “Break of the Centuries”, leading to a “Farewell to C major” – featuring music by Schoenberg and Bartók – culminating in a late night concert taking listeners up to “Armageddon: The end of time”.

“I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!” Musical conflicts between composers are legendary. Although they seemed to enjoy shared company, Tchaikovsky’s verdict on Brahms’ music sets up one of the musical battles – Tchaikovsky & Brahms – in a day devoted to “Star Wars” (14 July). Perhaps the best verdict came from contemporary critic Eduard Hanslick: “Tchaikovsky’s music always sounds better than it is; the music of Brahms is often better than it sounds.” The day ends with a recital of works whose composers had to suffer withering put-downs from fellow colleagues.

“Clocks and Clouds” on 17 July takes us through the span of a day, from dawn (including Schubert’s Morgenlied and Elgar’s Chanson de matin) to dusk (Respighi’s Il tramonto) to serenades and music depicting night. Britten’s evocative song cycle the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings eventually closes the day.

“Truth and (some) fiction”(19 July) explores musical storytelling. Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf is a featured event suitable for “children aged 5-95”, but myths, legends and “fatal attraction” form the basis of different recitals across the day. Fairy tales and muses are the inspiration behind concerts on 23 July under the title “Once upon a time”.

© Stefan Bremer
© Stefan Bremer
Sibelius – the “time aristocrat” – is featured on concerts throughout 20th July. Vladimir Mendelssohn describes the qualities of this Finnish giant in the year of his 150th anniversary. “Listen to the avant-gardist young Sibelius as compared with the avant-garde of the 1880s (Brahms , Grieg and Verdi ), the sensational stage music composer, the most impressive author of tone poems and most intimate chamber music. Listen to the wiseness of the old composer, refusing the temptation of the abyss when surrounded by the surge of his last contemporary colleagues like Cage, Stockhausen  Boulez or Terry Riley.” Sibelius’ Piano Trio, his music for the play Pelléas and Mélisande and his String Quartet “Voces intimae” as well as the seldomly performed Kom nu hit, död – the last piece he arranged which is for baritone, harp and string quartet (1957) are programmed alongside works by his contemporaries.

The final day of the festival (25th July) explores the music of the different seasons, from the familiar (Vivaldi) to the unfamiliar (Honegger’s Pastorale d'été) and the new – Matthew Burtner’s Syntax of Snow for two Glockenspiel and Amplified Snow. Schubert’s Winterreise provides an introspective penultimate concert, before the festival ends with Astor Piazzolla’s exuberant Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.

From seasons, to times of day, from one century to the next, time spent at Kuhmo this July will be richly rewarded.


Article sponsored by Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival.