RECORDING REVIEW | Kokkonen | Väyrynen, Väyrynen, & Lehtola | "I am won over by Kokkonen’s towering originality and impact, especially in the powerful performance of the Requiem"

Joonas KOKKONEN (1921-1996)
Hääsoitto (‘Wedding Music’) (1968) [3:20]
Surusoitto (‘Funeral Music’) (1969) [3:31]
Requiem ‘in memoriam Maija Kokkonen’ (1980-1981) (arr. for choir and organ by Jouko Linjama) [36:25]
Lux aeterna (1974) [5:20]
Iuxta crucem (1979) [7:12]
Suvi Väyrynen (soprano), Joose Vähäsöyrinki (baritone), Jan Lehtola (organ)
Klemetti Institute Chamber Choir/Heikki Liimola
rec. 2013 (organ works), 2017 (Requiem), Paavalinkirkko, Helsinki. DDD
World première recording (Requiem for choir and organ arrangement)

The predilection of Joonas Kokkonen in his later years to harmonize tonality with serialism – as is represented in the works on the current disc – somewhat reflects Arnold Schoenberg’s poignant concession from 1948, that “…a longing to return to the older [tonal] style was always vigorous in me, and from time to time I had to yield to that urge.” If anything, although emancipating from the strict tethers of serial techniques to incorporate scents of tonality is hardly original a notion, only few of the likes of Allan Pettersson or Egon Wellesz were able to demonstrate this convincingly, if not without the relaxing of a certain musical integrity as it were. Listening to the current disc, I am won over by Kokkonen’s towering originality and impact, especially in the powerful performance of the Requiem.

A Tristanian love-death communion can be said to surround the Requiem, for it is a work written in the memory of Kokkonen’s wife after her death in 1979 yet it was the composer’s future wife who was to tear down an extensive writer’s block, making the creation possible. Kokkonen was asked to produce the most beautiful thing he could, and the devised architecture is one that grows in optimism and brightness in its gentle consolation. That three motivic cells predominate the work outside of the various tone rows reflect Kokkonen’s economical poeticism. And while six out of the nine movements conclude in hopeful E major chords, these reappearances give an impression of organic unity rather than monotony.

The current disc presents a world premiere recording of the Requiem based on its recent organ transcript by Juoko Linjama. Undoubtedly, substituting a full orchestra for an organ diminishes the potency, colour and expressive clarity the work is capable of exploring. Compared to the orchestral rendition (Vänskä/Lahti SO, BIS), the Kyrie eleison and Tractus lack menace and the Sanctus wants in rhythmic drive. Nonetheless, the black-and-white organ sonority portrays – not unlike the impressions a Dürer woodcut print give – a spirit of serene sobriety, which befits the nature of the work to great extent. The expansively taken last movement, Lux aeterna, is especially elevating in its vast quietude. Where Väyrynen’s operatic singing sometimes overpowers the hollow non-orchestral backdrop, e.g. Sanctus, her tonal command and warmth are something to admire. The superb singing of the Klementti Institute Chamber Choir, who sing with clarity and sensitivity, should also not go unremarked.

The four works for solo organ present in the rest of the disc – which in fact cover the entirely of organ music Kokkonen ever published – do not live up to the scale nor originality of the Requiem, yet are interesting in their compositional contexts. Two of these works circle around the theme of death, with Surusoitto (‘Funeral Music’) composed in the wake of the death of Kokkonen’s mother – its hypnotic central motif forms the basis of the Adagio of the Cello Concerto. The intricately beautiful Lux aeterna derives its musical seed from the aria Before my death I must speak to the people of Finland from the opera, The Last Temptations. Works of uplifting natures flank the disc; the wedding of the composer’s daughter is behind the brightly contoured Hääsoitto (‘Wedding Music’). Written for the inauguration of a new organ in the Ristinkirkko in Lahti, Iuxta crucem is a busy work; the BACH motif opens up a canvas of toccatas and chorale-like outbursts – a fitting work to conclude this ambitious, albeit under 60 minutes, disc.

[The article was originally published on MusicWeb International]

Young-Jin Hur