Pity the poor percussionist in Mozart's day. He didn't have much to do in the orchestra, save for the occasional punctuating roll of the kettledrum (usually supporting a burst of brass) or the rare ping of a triangle.
But today is a different story, especially considering the virtuosic percussion concerto that appears on this new album of (mostly) recent works by Einojuhani Rautavaara, the dean of Finnish composers. The concerto, called Incantations, was composed for Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, who has premiered works written for him by Elliott Carter and Jennifer Higdon, with more on the way from Steve Reich and Louis Andriessen. Currie premiered Incantations at London's Royal Festival Hall in 2009.
In a Gramophone interview, the percussionist recalls the beginning of the project, when he visited Rautavaara in Helsinki to talk about the concerto and discovered the composer had already written two-thirds of it. But Currie had plenty of artistic input in the end. For the concerto's third and final movement, Rautavaara made room for a cadenza, leaving all the ideas up to the soloist.
As for the percussion instruments themselves, Currie says Rautavaara manages to play individual sounds off each other and yet treat the entire percussion group as one big instrument.
"The set-up is centered around the marimba, with the other instruments layered like an organ manual, " Currie says. "The next layer is crotales [small tuned bronze discs], then a row of drums, then cymbals, to the side are tubular bells; five layers of sound."
The three-movement concerto is laid out in the tried and true fast-slow-fast formula, which plays into Currie's virtuosity in the outer movements. Rautavaara's opening gambit, a complex marimba line that stretches out as if to the horizon, eventually gives way to raucous passages for drums and cymbals. The heart of the work is the central "Espressivo," a calm oasis for vibraphone only where repeated chords get refracted over again in various keys.
The final movement (below), with its shifting pulsations, hints at Rautavaara's mystical side. In his notes to the piece, he says it "could be a shaman's dance in a jerky rhythm." And that shaman might as well be Currie armed with his mallets, his battery of instruments and his staggering technique.
But Incantations isn't the only compelling concerto on this album. Not long after completing it, Rautavaara wrote his Second Cello Concerto, subtitling it "Towards the Horizon." Written for Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk, who plays most expressively, the concerto unfolds as a long, romantic song, with barely a breath in the cello line. The nearly constant outpouring of lyricism includes achingly beautiful passages sung in the cello's very highest register in the finale.
Sandwiched between the two sublime concertos is the three-movement Modificata. As its title might suggest, it's a reworking of some of Rautavaara's very earliest music from the 1950s, written in a serialist style with atmospheric orchestration.
Throughout the disc, the Helsinki Philharmonic plays beautifully for conductor Jan Storgårds, and the recorded sound is transparent with a surprisingly wide dynamic. This is a good one for an excellent set of headphones or a whopping stereo system.