Preview of Kuhmo Festival: chamber music under the midnight sun © Stefan Bremer
Preview of Kuhmo Festival: chamber music under the midnight sun
© Stefan Bremer

For a nation of just 5.4 million, Finland famously has a remarkable number of symphony orchestras and concert halls. Chamber music is also admirably catered for. This summer, an expected 40,000 visitors are due to descend on the town of Kuhmo, nestled in the beautiful Kainuu region of eastern Finland for the annual Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. From its small beginnings in 1970, the festival has grown in both size and stature. This season sees over a hundred soloists, chamber ensembles and choirs participating in a fortnight packed with a tempting musical menu. While striving for the artistic excellence for which the festival is renowned, the events take place in a relaxed atmosphere, creating what is celebrated as “the spirit of Kuhmo”.

 The forthcoming season takes audiences on a journey across seven different cities – Vienna, Paris, London, New York, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Hollywood – and through seven different art forms. Each day has a different theme. For examples, on Monday 14 July, all the music is around the theme of Dance, while the following day’s events focus on New York. Vladimir Mendelssohn, the festival’s Artistic Director, comments that music is the art form which stands above all others, making it the greatest challenge to present. “Ultimately, music was and still is the highest necessity for the human soul. The fools, the naïve, the lovers, the poets, the mathematicians and the minstrels are her willing servants.”

Kuhmo Arts Centre © Anu Saikko
Kuhmo Arts Centre
© Anu Saikko

In a pleasing act of symmetry, the festival opens and closes with Bach Passions. Diethard Hellman’s 1964 reconstruction of the St Mark Passion launches the festival. Bach’s original work was first performed in Leipzig on Good Friday 1731 and again in 1744, before the music was lost. A strong line-up of soloists are bolstered by the world-renowned St Petersburg Chamber Choir. The St Matthew Passion closes the festival on 26 July, Carsten Schmidt conducting the Finnish Baroque Orchestra.

Bettina Castaño © Mac Aven
Bettina Castaño
© Mac Aven

A key concert at the Kuhmo Arts Centre in the day devoted to dance combines Spanish flavoured music with flamenco. Jaakko Kortekangas is the baritone soloist in Ravel’s Cervantes-inspired song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. This is a work that grew from unfortunate beginnings. Ravel had been commissioned to compose music to a film based on the wind-tilting knight, but he suffered a severe blow to the head in a taxi accident and, unable to continue composition, the commission was given to Jacques Ibert instead. The three Ravel songs were later published as a mini-cycle. Manuel De Falla’s Siete canciones populares Españolas and the “Fandango” from Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet in D major feature, as does the renowned flamenco dancer Bettina Castaño to add authentic Spanish fire to proceedings.

Another intriguing highlight is the concert entitled The Black Friar on Saturday 19 July, part of the day devoted to London. Many concert planners build programmes around the theme of Shakespeare and Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is justly celebrated. However, opportunities to hear Piazzola’s music inspired by the same play (El sueño de una Noche de verano) don’t come along every day and there’s more unusual repertoire from Chausson (Chansons de Shakespeare) and Sibelius (songs from Twelfth Night) in a refreshingly different angle on The Bard, which doesn’t include a single note by an English composer. Opera lovers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see Romina Basso as Dido in a single performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas earlier the same day.

Kuhmo talo © Steffe
Kuhmo talo
© Steffe

Prokofiev’s rarely heard piano fantasy on themes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is part of the day devoted to St Petersburg entitled Different Tsars. The concert closes with Tchaikovsky’s sunny Souvenir de Florence, always an audience favourite, in its original string sextet setting.

Lovers of the visual arts should investigate the musical fare on offer on 24 July, including concerts with links to paintings by Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali, the latter including a rare chance to hear Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero (The Bullfighter's Prayer).

A key recommendation must be The Master’s Cookbook, a mouth-watering programme inspired by food! It’s delightful to see Rossini (a keen gourmand himself) well represented in a menu offering Mozart’s Das Butterbrod as a starter, a serving of Schubert’s Trout Quintet and Johann Strauss’ Wiener Bonbons, all washed down with a cup of Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two). Take a look through the Bachtrack festival listings – there’s plenty to feast on!

This article is sponsored by the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival.