Kuusisto sym BIS2747

Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M.C.B. (2019), theme and fourteen variations for orchestra
Jaakko Kuusisto (1974-2022)
Symphony, Op. 39 (2020-2021, completed by Pekka Kuusisto and Jari Eskola)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (Pictured Within)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Pekka Kuusisto (Symphony)
rec. 2019, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK; December 2022, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
BIS BIS2747 SACD [66]

On the face of it, this pair of big works make strange bedfellows. BIS supremo Robert von Bahr admitted as much in some of the marketing bumf which emerged to coincide with the release of this disc. Yet it turns out that the programme is not only congenial. It does make sense as a coupling – just have a little imagination…

The dedicatee himself conceived the first piece. It was a sixtieth birthday present for the indefatigable Martyn Brabbins. A mysterious, unidentified individual contributed the theme. Each of the fourteen variations comes from a different contemporary figure whom Brabbins has championed at some point. Each variation is intentionally modelled in some way upon the corresponding variation in Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a work of special significance to the conductor. John Pickard, one of the composers, writes in his eloquent booklet note: “Brabbins decided to invert the idea of a single composer writing variations about several friends; instead, he asked several composers to write, not so much about him, but certainly for him.”

This forty-minute pièce d’occasion shares the disc with the Symphony by the Finnish violinist, conductor and composer Jaakko Kuusisto. His untimely passing at the age of 47 due to a brain tumour robbed the musical firmament – in Finland and beyond – of a significant presence. He had already compiled initial sketches at the time of his diagnosis. The terrible toll which the illness inflicted meant that the symphony remained far from complete at his death. There were just ten minutes worth of material across its two anticipated movements. His widow Maija then recruited Jaakko’s two closest collaborators, his brother Pekka (also a renowned violinist) and the music engraver Jari Eskola (previously responsible for preparing Jaakko’s scores for publication), to complete the work. They set about decoding the material he had left behind, and added completely new content consistent with their deep understanding of Jaakko’s ‘style’; he had left no specific further clues to guide them. This would duly be interpolated into the work to create a convincing, authentic swan song, structured according to the two-movement design Jaakko had intended.

It may be a bit of contrivance, then, to characterise the contents of this album as a cryptographer’s dream, whether from the perspective of the listener who seeks to guess the composers of the individual variations in the Brabbins tribute, or from the far more challenging angle of Messrs Kuusisto and Eskola’s attempts at second-guessing the kind of sounds Jaakko Kuusisto might have had in mind for his symphony. In any case, regardless of the credibility of proposing such a link, the music is what matters. And given the unusual circumstances surrounding the creation of both pieces, to my ears they have both turned out remarkably well.

The concept might still be something of a novelty, but the cleverly titled Pictured Within is far from unprecedented in recent history as a set of variations by a collective. Arguably the best-known example was the Variations on an Elizabethan Theme for strings. Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst proposed and ‘organised’ them to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The theme was the Irish tune Sellinger’s Round, as harmonised by William Byrd and arranged by Imogen Holst. Lennox Berkeley, Britten himself, Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle, Michael Tippett and William Walton each supplied a variation. The audience at the Aldeburgh premiere, however, were not told who composed what, and were asked to submit guesses to raise charitable funds. Nobody proved to be entirely successful in solving the puzzle.

A similar project celebrated the opening of the Severn Bridge in 1966. Appropriately, the BBC commissioned a team of three English composers (Malcolm Arnold, Nicholas Maw and Tippett again) and three Welsh composers (Alun Hoddinott, Daniel Jones and Grace Williams) to produce the splendid Severn Bridge Variations. John France’s review gives a detailed account of the genesis and an analysis of the work. More recently, in 1987, David Bedford, Alexander Goehr, Robin Holloway, Oliver Knussen, Robert Saxton and Judith Weir collaborated on the predominantly light-as-air Variations on ‘Sumer is icumen in’.

Conveniently, each of the three sets lasts no more than twenty minutes. They appear together on an enterprising NMC disc, still available (review). Martyn Brabbins’s Birthday Variations, far more ambitious in scale, require fourteen composers, a large orchestra and forty minutes. I have listed the co-conspirators in alphabetical order. In the spirit of the Aldeburgh audience in 1953, quiz-loving readers may wish to play ‘spot the composer’ during a pre-purchase streaming. I am striving to avoid spoilers in these comments.

The anonymously composed theme, surprisingly terse for a birthday, is attractive and accessible enough. The first variation, based on that dedicated to CAE (Elgar’s wife), seems ravishing and apt from the outset but gradually becomes more sinister, mainly through the use of percussion. The brief fragment inspired by HDS-P is more conventionally orchestrated, and livelier, even dance-like. It precedes an Allegretto variation which is positively jaunty, rather jazzy and teasingly reminiscent of Constant Lambert, or even Walton in Façade mode.

The fourth variation follows a brief caesura. It is rapid and attractively orchestrated. Number five seems more elusive in the context of the whole sequence – refreshingly so, I might add. Elgar’s Ysobel was a violist, and viola plays a significant role in what is a clever and beautifully constructed sixth variation.

After another brief pause to moderate too obvious a stylistic clash, the equivalent of Elgar’s Troyte variation is also percussion-dominated and rather jagged, but it concludes with an aptly Elgarian crash. There follows a warmly reflective section, mirroring the WN variation, whose composer has sought to convey the warmth of the dedicatee’s personality with a spirited string tune. The ninth variation corresponds to Nimrod. At about five minutes, this reflection is stately, profound, unsingable, elusive and absolutely characteristic of its composer. It is brooding and magnificent, and it contrasts wonderfully with the next section whose composer imaginatively seeks to exploit the Allegretto flutterings of Elgar’s Dorabella. The apt contrast between these two superbly made fragments at once epitomises the extraordinary skill with which this entire project has been executed.

Elgar’s eleventh variation alludes to G R S(inclair), or more accurately to his crazy bulldog Dan. The allotted author in the new work gave us a noisy, rollicking, lovable little number. It subsides at the conclusion in a manner much more characteristic of this composer’s style. The author of the twelfth variation incorporates BGN’s cello into a poignant solo which gradually transforms into a piece of radiance, nobility and depth. And then comes a reflection on Elgar’s mysterious ‘asterisks’ variation. A personal reflection on the part of its composer, it aptly mirrors Elgar’s model. Here the music takes on something of a marine character.

The final variation carries the enigmatic subtitle The Art of the Beginning. Its author encourages the listener to refer to Google (or alternatives) if they do not readily ‘get it’. This aptly grand, exciting, thrillingly orchestrated conclusion inevitably incorporates a fabulous organ, lush woodwind flurries and colourful percussion.

The work was recorded live. The enthusiastic burst of applause at the conclusion seems heartfelt, and is certainly merited. Pictured Within proves to be a remarkably cogent and enjoyable sequence. The stylistic juxtapositions are managed quite beautifully. It benefits from a wonderful performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by the dedicatee, and from a sumptuously detailed recording. It seems unlikely that the work will be programmed again any time soon, so it is gratifying that BIS had the foresight to preserve it for posterity.

The second movement of Jaakko Kuusisto’s Symphony, marked Lento, has twice the duration of the first. The spare, quiet opening has something of the likeable aloofness of Fartein Valen’s symphonic works but it abrubtly fades into a nostalgic piano tune – a touching song Kuusisto apparently wrote for his wife. These fragile, disconnected piano textures recur throughout the work. Peculiar percussive slashes and knockings evoke the sounds of the various scans and tests which the composer was made to endure throughout his illness. The orchestral writing is supple and accessible. Juxtapositions are unusual though rarely jarring, as when winsome tunes for solo strings expand into inspiring (but not too sentimental) little fanfares.

On the other hand, the cello solo, which constitutes the bridge to the finale, seems devastating. The movement begins with a sequence of pensive woodwind solos over distant drums. This is developed in a characteristically inscrutable Nordic style. The spirit of Sibelius’s fourth symphony seems to hover until a pointed percussion- and piano-led outburst intervenes. A delightful folk melody on solo violin over sustained strings restores the mystery and the melancholy. This develops into a solemn, extended brass chorale which projects a noble sweep before it ceases suddenly. The diffuse piano figurations return whilst the bleaker Sibelian mood leads toward a remarkable coda; its rhythms are derived from the sequence of light signals emitted by the lighthouses of the Gulf of Finland around the island of Jarmo in the Turku archipelago, a place which was clearly significant to Jaakko Kussisto. These strange dislocated high notes, presented over a backcloth of distant tam-tams and rolling timpani, are what must be one of the oddest conclusions to any symphony. Yet its effect lingers long after the piece has faded out.

My initial response to this work was utter bafflement. Its elements seemed just too diffuse and incoherent, unsurprisingly given the circumstances of its completion. After four hearings, I have radically revised this view. I find it as powerful a translation of the experience of grieving (by all concerned) as one could imagine in a piece of contemporary music. The loneliness evoked by some of the solo writing for piano and strings is unambiguously sad. And yet Jaakko’s personal experiences which Pekka Kuusisto and Jari Eskola have attempted to weave into the score seem more stoic, the sentiment more reined in. As a result, the work seems all the more profound and powerful. The Helsinki Philharmonic under Pekka Kuusisto play movingly. The BIS sonics capture every detail of the impressive spatial effects. I urge the many readers who have a ‘thing’ for contemporary Nordic music to seek this symphony out. And to persevere with it. It completes a coupling which defies the odds and proves to be far from unwieldy.

Richard Hanlon

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Composers of the variations
Kalevi Aho (b. 1949)
Sally Beamish (b. 1956)
Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)
Richard Blackford (b. 1954)
Gavin Bryars (b. 1943)
Brett Dean (b. 1961)
Dai Fujikura (b. 1977)
Wim Hendrickx (1962-2022)
Colin Matthews (b. 1946)
Anthony Payne (1936-2021)
John Pickard (b. 1963)
David Sawer (b. 1961)
Iris ter Schiphorst (b. 1956)
Judith Weir (b. 1954)