After several operas in the castle that is the centre of the Savonlinna Festival, we relocated for a ‘fringe event’, a concert by the combined forces of the YL Male Voice Choir and the Tapiola Choir of Finnish choral music at the Kerimäki Church. Seldom can a church like Kerimäki be found; it’s the largest wooden church in world, seating well over 3000 people on more than 16,000 metres of pews. Its beautiful interior, pale and cool with large windows flooding the space with summer light, carries sound well and if you can bear the discomfort on the posterior from the hard wooden benches, it’s a wonderful environment for choral performance.

Kerimäki Church © Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo
Kerimäki Church
© Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo

The two choirs have strong pedigrees: the Tapiola Choir was formed in 1963 as a standard school choir, and has since gone on to become an internationally renowned youth choir with records and multiple tours abroad, while the YL Male Voice Choir has been singing since its foundation by Hannikainen in 1883, long before Finnish independence and claims to be the oldest Finnish-language in existence. A fine team under Pasi Hyökki for a programme that covered music by Toivo Kuula from the start of the 20th century right through to a new commission from Jukka Linkola.

The concert began with an arrangement of the traditional Finnish folk song On suuri rantas autius by Matti and Pasi Hyökki, which was sung by the Tapiola Choir as they entered the church from the sides, producing a nice clean sound. A second folk song, Järven rannalla, combined the choirs with a nicely phrased solo from the varnished baritone of Sampo Haapaniemi. Hämyssä kesäisen yö by Hannikainen was lightly done by the youth choir, the atmosphere of a summer night evoked by the delicacy of performance. Two songs by Kuuka showed the ease of range of the YL Choir with a fine contribution from the bass voices. Sibelius’ Opus 18 has some of his best vocal writing; highlights from this performance was the crisp singing of the Tapiola singers in Terve kuu, given in appropriately reverential tones and the Venematka, sung with plenty of idiomatic character. Sydämeni laulu, about the death of a child, was sung with particular attention to the text which made itself felt in the colouring of the choirs’ singing.

Sampo Haapaniemi and the YL Male Voice and Tapiola Choirs © Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo
Sampo Haapaniemi and the YL Male Voice and Tapiola Choirs
© Soila Puurtinen, Itä-Savo

After the interval, more Sallinen, this time his Lauluja mereltä, Songs of the Sea (the most gentle of his works I have heard so far) which was specifically written for junior musicians. Of the four, the Tapiola were strongest in the first two: Älä tuule, tyttö tuuli, was sung with a mild sense of entreaty, the second Sympaatti, with words written by the composer’s then nine and eleven year old sons, imbued with an air of business and change. The new work Kuva kalliosa by Linkola was an agreeable, if uninspirational, composition. Using as a source Jukka Itkonen’s poem, Linkola has created a six movement piece, of which by far the strongest was the second which implied awe and wonder at the rock painting that lies at the heart of the piece. Hallmarks of both choirs was a clear approach to diction – syllables enunciated and articulate, and sung with meaning – and a sense of unity between the choirs.

 

Dominic's press trip to Finland was sponsored by the Savonlinna Opera Festival