Joonas Kokkonen: Symphonies 1 & 2; Opus Sonorum

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (Ondine ODE 1129-2)

5 January 20093  stars

KokkonenFinnish composer Joonas Kokkonen (1921-1996) is unsurprisingly being marketed as the one who stepped into Sibelius' shoes. Had Sibelius been an outright innovator of musical language, this would have been a smooth marketing strategy.

But Jean Sibelius has always stuck out among his European colleagues of the time for his resistance of the Germanic modernist imperatives: rather than being part of the avant-garde, he asserted his own identity through an anachronistic medium, spinning out one symphony of majestic structural ambition after another. His symphonic gift was deeply idiosyncratic, and accrued significance because it became as the swan song of the romantic symphony in the last rays of its twilight. For any composer to claim to continue along Sibelius' path is a dangerous move.

Now, Kokkonen belongs to the Class of 1921, and thus belongs to the generation that took over from Sibelius (who died in 1957). He has also written four symphonies. Now, if it is admittedly rare for a modern composer to write any symphony at all, I still very much doubt that four symphonies would be enough to brand anyone a symphonist. No-one would ever call Stravinsky a symphonist, and yet he has written just as many symphonies as Kokkonen. Not even Ives, who did come up with four very large symphonies, would quite fit into the slot.

This is to say, that Kokkonen's symphonic gift is not as prolific nor, maybe, as individual as the CD cover would have us believe. Nor is this a bad thing: clearly Kokkonen is a well-rounded, able composer who has written not just symphonies but an opera, and a great number of works for chamber ensemble, choir, organ, voice and piano. Nor do his symphonies display the type of macroscopic architectures that made his famous predecessor famous. A judgement of Kokkonen's work needs a wider basis than his symphonic work, and must be formulated independently of the associations that his nationality may spark.

The first symphony's first two movements are dominated by a four-note motif opened by a rising minor third and major seventh (both prince intervals of the Viennese atonal idiom) which appears in the opening bars of the first symphony, in the lower strings. The quoted influence of Bach on Kokkonen's first symphony should be read as a penchant for second Viennese counterpoint and thematicism (they loved Bach, too). The drawn out melodic bass-line of the lower strings enter in a dialogue with the sharp figurations of the treble woodwind — ably balanced by Sakari Oramo — creating a thick timbric paste that is diluted only by two bergian violin solos and finally dissolves into silence. The second movement starts with a jumpy bass-line in the plucked lower strings that unfortunately gives way all too soon to the first movement's fabric of shrill woodwinds and bergian strings; no significant contrast lifts the general gloomy mood until the middle of the stormy third movement.

Here a new idea takes shape: a fully harmonized four note motif whose bright diatonicism clashes with the idiom adopted so far, and yet rescues the symphony from anonymity. This recurring harmonic sequence, so artlessly recognisable, recurs like an apparition throughout the slow, fourth movement, creating a halting contrast with the sombre meandering of the lower strings. The formulaic ending, with the major chord plucked in the lower strings, acquires a wonderfully uncanny quality in the midst of the early expressionist haze.

It is the magic of sharply contrasted musical ideas that is missing in Kokkonen's second symphonic effort. Only the second and fourth movement, although perhaps all too similar to one another, manage to gather up some energy from the obsessive use of the five-note descending melodic strand that emerged from the first movement. Frenzied ostinati, in which the motif seems to somehow get stuck and work itself into a climax, are effective, and evoke the same type of dysfunctional anguish of Schoenberg's 'Vorgefühle' from the Op.15 Orchestral Pieces.

The last track on the CD, Opus Sonorum, is also a work that deliberately uses no percussion. However, in Opus Sonorum the avoidance of percussion becomes a conscious compositional choice (indeed, Kokkonen was irritated by the amount of percussion employed in the compositions of the German avant-garde of the 1950s and 60s). Thus Kokkonen thinks through the orchestration, using a piano to provide the sharp edges. The result is a refreshingly full sonority that is clear of the Viennese haze and indeed reminiscent of Sibelius, whose name is encoded in the thematic material, making this last track a striking final perk.

That Kokkonen's first two symphonies fail to truly enthuse may partly be ascribed by the misleading association to Sibelius. Kokkonen may not be the greatest symphonist after Sibelius—mostly because it is unreasonable to wish for a symphonist nowadays. Yet surely his long and varied list of works promises more than these two symphonic examples could deliver.

By Delia Casadei