During the annus horribilis for celebrities that was 2016, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s death at the age of 87 was mourned by the classical community. There were widespread tributes paid to “the greatest Finnish composer since Sibelius”, although unlike his supportive forebear, Rautavaara continued to create into old age. In the memorial concert mounted by the Sydney Festival three orchestral works were featured, one from the 1970s and two from the 1990s. While there were clear emotive contrasts within the programme, it didn’t offer anything like an adequate survey of the composer’s varied stylistic output. All the works were taken from the neo-tonal phase of his career, and the heavy reliance on a few signature textures, however pleasurable in themselves, led to a sense of sameness.

© Prudence Upton
© Prudence Upton

Luckily, at an unbroken 75 minutes the concert wasn’t a test of anyone’s patience. For this concert the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was trimmed back so as to fit on the compact stage of the City Recital Hall: the strings, in particular, were much fewer in number than normal. While the sound produced was more than adequate for the space and had no obvious imbalances thanks to careful direction by Benjamin Northey, one might question whether a full-sized ensemble might have given a more epic account of the symphony, in particular.

Cantus arcticus, the earliest work on the programme, mixed recorded birdsong with live orchestra in a way that was fashionable in 1972, but felt rather dated today; indeed, at one point, the caws from the tape came across as unintentionally humorous. The orchestral textures themselves were highly interesting, building from the opening will-o-the-wisp lines from the flutes to multiple trills in the woodwinds. In typical Rautavaara fashion, the strings then entered with a lush chordal passage, with the winds now providing piquantly dissonant counterpoint.

The taped birdsong (whose dynamic levels were manipulated by a player seated in the body of the orchestra) bridged the gap between movements, and the similarity in mood between the closing section of the first and the start of the second blurred the boundaries still further. The title of the final movement, “Swans Migrating”, inevitably brought thoughts of the finale of Sibelius’ Fifth to mind, but although it did build up to a comparable head of steam, the overall impact was less sublime. Where Cantus arcticus was relatively austere, the Isle of Bliss (1995) was a tone poem of orchestral gorgeousness. The use of chordal strings and dissonant woodwind writing gave the music a delicious bitonal bite in places, but overall the feeling was ebullient, with nice solos from the horn and trumpet.

A much larger complement of brass and percussion was introduced for Symphony no. 7 “Angel of Light” (1994), the longest work on the programme. Bruckner’s Third, rather than anything by Sibelius, seemed like the inspiration at the start of the first – both share the key of D minor, the rocking string accompaniment, gradually layered upwards, and an eventual burst in the tension. The second movement (Molto allegro) felt like the first genuinely fast section in the concert – previously, even where there had been much activity, the measured rate of harmonic change kept things anchored and stable. Even here, the genuine scherzo-like feel only lasted a few minutes before a long-note chorale in the horns was added in. Trio-like contrast was provided in a passage featuring spaced chords on harp, marimba and vibraphone, answered by brusque trumpets and frenetic strings. However, rather than usher in a return of the opening texture, this was followed by a direct segue into the third movement, (“Come un sogno”), appropriately dream-like thanks to its silken string textures. The concertmaster, Andrew Haveron, had a lovely solo in the closing moments.

Within the finale, all Rautavaara’s virtues – most especially the sonic beauty of the seraphic last pages – were on show; by this stage of the evening, however, their impact had been somewhat lessened by repetition. There are other works by the Finn – Angels and Visitations (1978), for instance, or the Violin Concerto (1977), or still more the early Requiem in our Time for brass (1953) – which might have provided a greater foil to the lusciousness on display here, and thus enabled it to have its full impact.