With the new Ondine release of Kimmo Hakola's Piano Concerto and Sinfonietta, we are presented with a puzzling mixed bag. While the Sinfonietta is a modernist single movement whose ambition to raw power is a little stereotypical, though effective in places; the Piano Concerto is the sort of piece that demands attention. Even on paper, this piece spells trouble: announced in 1990 – the time of Hakola's breakthrough as a composer – as an imminent premiere, it was withdrawn from performance for a further 6 years before receiving its first performance in 1996.
On top of this, it is a massive piece (nine movements for a total duration of 55 minutes), and it is something of a watershed piece for Hakola. Placed right at the end of the string of modernist works that brought the composer to public attention in the late 80s, its long gestation and eventual performance signify a crisis and, also, its overcoming.
So what has Hakola found in his 6 year long search? He's found stylistic heterogeneity, for one. Moments from his modernist days are now always ushered and followed by anything from African drumming to pentatonic chinoiseries , Rachmaninoff, synthesizer, straight major scales, and brassy moments that seem to have been plucked out of a cinematic Hollywood score.
One can see what Hakola is getting at: the purist self-referentiality of modernism (nothing is to sound like any other music, especially not popular/folk music) has tired him, and led him write music that constantly references music whose sound is heavily grounded in popular culture. Thus he quotes not just any Romantic composer, but Rachmaninoff whose tardive romanticism (he was writing in the early 20th century) has come to signify musical romanticism in popular culture. Hakola quotes not Chinese folk music but the basic 'black keys' melodies we associate with China. His use of brass is so in-your-face as to remind you of the soundtrack to Indiana Jones.
All of this is complemented by an insistence on an economy of means: for 55 minutes of music we are sustained by a handful of recognizable moments, amongst which the aforementioned major scale, a descending chromatic scale, a fanfare motif in the brass, a couple of chords climbing the piano keyboard octave by octave. Alas it is often not enough, especially for the boisterous first seven movements, which tend to sound very similar to one another (though I did enjoy the devilish mechanism of the 'Toccata').
For sheer musical stamina and unfailing enthusiasm, the Tampere Philarmonic Orchestra and conductor John Storgårds deserve an awed mention, as does the soloist Henri Sifridsson. I have heard very few pieces which require the same muscular strength and flexibility from a pianist, and Sifridsson never sounds as though he needs to catch his breath. Despite all of this I can't deny that the Cadenza makes too much of a good job of drilling C major scales, chords and arpeggios into one's head, and that generally, Hakola's thumping heroicism inevitably outstays its welcome.
And yet by the time we arrive to a moment's rest, the haunting eighth movement makes it all worth it. The piano is frozen into repeating a simple rising and falling gesture mechanically while the oboe intones a forlorn, wandering song. It is disturbingly still after all that clatter, but it wouldn't be as halting without it.
The final movement, 'Lux', is also a revelation. The shuffled tinkling of the pitched metals at the beginning is a perfect premise for the shimmering arpeggiations of the piano. And between the strange rippling of major scales that follows and the Rachmaninoff moment with the horn melody and piano accompaniment, there is just a moment – as though the music had been disembodied for a second – with percussion and piano hovering around clusters in the top register and a low, muffled bell heard from a great distance, which took my breath away. And the trembling wind single note that is heard for the last 30 seconds of 'Lux' (the very end of the concerto) keeps you guessing until the very last second.
Yet my concern here is that I cannot quite discern the point behind Hakola's postmodern collage (with all its winks to bad taste). Is it a joke? The earnest heroicism of the first seven movements makes me doubt this, and yet some of the juxtapositions are just funny in themselves, such as the overtly funereal bell-toll that stumps the music out in the third movement 'Forza', and the stereotypically oriental pentatonic melody that unexpectedly overtakes the mischievous opening of 'Maestoso'. If this was not meant to amuse, then I am afraid that there is little virtue in this confusion except for making us appreciate a few interspersed moments of inspiration. And as I cannot be sure, I can't quite give Hakola's own brand of postmodernism a committed 'thumbs up'. But I confess to being intrigued.
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