Let’s be frank. If you are going to buy a CD combining the best three works of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, it’s because you are either (a) a doctoral student writing a thesis on Scandinavian classical music or (b) an open-minded music geek who heard that the work uses recorded bird calls as an instrument -- and you think that’s just some gnarly obscurity that you can use to impress your hipster friends*. However, unlike virtually all other “this-music-is-so-great, because-you-don’t-know-about-it” crap, Rautavaara’s music is truly enjoyable and rewarding. The composer's output is not obscure in the United States because it's bad; it just bears an unfortunate headline -- 20th Century neo-classical music from Finland.
You know, modern (or postmodern if you gotta be a dick about it) orchestral composers have it pretty rough. Their music is often unimaginably difficult to create but usually gets hidden somewhere behind a hundred Beethoven albums in the antiquated, all-encompassing “classical” section. Generations after classical music's golden age, these newer composers are unlikely to have an important page in the history books, and because the internet has effectively destroyed any chance for a lucrative career selling records, they must resort to lugging around cumbersome symphonies to half-filled community-sponsored theater halls to get any notice or paycheck (except for those who are more skillful at receiving governmental artistic grants). Einojuhani Rautavaara took a slightly different route, purposely changing up his musical styles (serialism, operatic, romanticism, avant-garde, neo-classicism, etc.), which kept his audiences on their toes and kept his music relevant. By the time he started experimenting with magnetic tape samples, electronics, and mysticism, no one saw him as an old kook resorting to record selling gimmicks; he was simply continuing his innovative path while earning the prestige associated with the most renowned Finnish composers.
Now, not to take anything away from this compilation's pianist (the lovely and talented Laura Mikkola – who is perhaps best known for performing Rautavaara’s works) nor the other works contained therein, but the highlight is Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra). What is noteworthy about the 1972 piece is that Rautavaara himself recorded Arctic bird calls in Northern Finland and composed an entire concerto based on -- and utilizing -- the recordings. Even more remarkable is that he slightly re-tuned the woodwinds in the orchestra to better match the featured avian guests. The end result comes together beautifully, delivering on the intent to transport the listener to an isolated Arctic island inhabited solely by mysterious birds, seen only in fleeting moments by ancient Nordic sailors. Rautavaara builds a delicate work that does not relegate the tapes to artsy ambiance, but relies upon them as the star of the show --the vital component that brings the entire concerto together. The (taped) birds bring life to the orchestra, and the orchestra makes the chirps and tweets lyrical.
An ample comparison to Rautavaara’s music are the building designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Both bodies of work are unmistakably modern, seemingly natural extensions of their surroundings, and will frustrate purists for sidestepping the true-to-form status quo. However, most of Rautavaara’s work should not necessarily strike the listener as overly radical -- in fact, some of his best work (including Symphony Number 3 on this disc) is quite characteristic of late-19th Century romanticism. One must only imagine the effect if Lizst, Wagner, or Chopin had the technology available to blast recorded samples through speakers alongside their symphonies. Einojuhani Rautavaara is still alive and well today, still waxing mystical (as he has done for the later part of his career), and proudly stands as one of the most exceptional names in Finnish culture. Who knows, perhaps 50 years from now, when the Arctic birds have been killed off by global warming, the world will use Cantus Articus as the best means to visualize what a cold, Arctic environment was once like.
* Please note that the writer of this review does not intentionally intend to broadcast his ulterior motives for choosing this album.