Helvi Leiviskä (1902-1982)
Orchestral Works Volume 1
Sinfonia brevis Op.30 (1962, rev. 1972)
Orchestral Suite No.2 Op.11 (1937-3198)
Symphony No.2 Op.27 (1954)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska
rec. 2023, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
Reviewed in stereo
BIS BIS-2701 SACD [63]

This is exactly the kind of recording that BIS do so very well.  Very unfamiliar but fascinating repertoire presented in the best possible light both in terms of engineering (a prime example of BIS’ sophisticated DSD sound produced by Ingo Petry), performance and interpretation.  But this is so the ‘norm’ for this label that it is easy as a listener to become complacent regarding the all-round excellence of this release.

The liner – another consistently high quality presentation – describes Helvi Leiviskä as “an outstanding composer” and “the best-known female composer of her generation in Finland”.  That might well be the case but her fame and stature has not spread much if at all beyond her home country’s boarders until now.  By chance the Hänssler label released a two disc set in September 2023 coupling her piano concerto alongside the Symphony No.1 but before that her representation in the catalogue was limited to some piano and chamber works as well as a recording of the Symphony No.3 on the Finlandia label.  This new BIS disc is my first encounter with any of her music.

Enticingly this is called “Orchestral Works Vol.1” and as such bodes well.  The value for the new listener here is that there three works offer quite different aspects of her composing craft.  Eila Tarasti in the liner makes the very valid point that; “it is difficult to place Leiviskä in any –ism, she belongs neither in modernism nor neoclassicism”.  Yet at the same time there are such elements in the scores.  Leiviskä’s training was thorough and with many if not all of the finest composer/teachers in Finland at the time.  So names such as Melartin , Madetoja, Englund, Kokkonen and Funtek are mentioned as influences and teachers.  Yet the results remain individual and rather impressive.

A phrase that jumped out of the liner for me (here in regard to the Symphony No.2) is “abstract polyphony”.  This seems to be very applicable to the later Sinfonia brevis Op.30 as well as the Symphony No.2 Op.27 that completes the disc.  Tarasti further characterises the symphony as “highly austere, restrained, melancholy and at times very dissonant”.  I am not sure I would use melancholy as a description – more a sense of sober objectivity.  Although they use quite different musical languages and styles I hear a similar kind of intellectual sobriety in the symphonies of Alan Rawsthorne or Geoffrey Bush.  Her dates are all but identical to William Walton – but her music speaks with a very different voice to his.  The disc opens with the single movement Sinfonia Brevis.  Although this runs to just 12:35, this is a densely argued work which has little time for orchestral glamour or melodic richness instead aiming for something “unconditionally absolute”.  Apparently Melartin commented on seeing an early orchestral work; “Good heavens, how thickly you have painted” and although in the later works Leiviskä achieved a strikingly effective textural clarity there are points where some passages feel heavily scored.  That said, this performance by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Dalia Stasevska, aided by BIS’ typically illuminating DSD recording has all the detail and finely-gauged sophistication one could hope for.

The influence of Sibelius is striking by its absence.  There are very passing moments when instrumental blocks grind against each other in a way faintly reminiscent of the older composer – but no more than they appear in any 20th Century composer who responded to such a compositional approach.  Interestingly the work moves from a relatively dry and academic opening with initial material worked through in a fairly intellectual manner exploiting ‘old-fashioned’ techniques of fugue and the like to a final exultant climax that the earlier passages did little to suggest would occur.

 That Leiviskä was a composer of considerable expressive range is reinforced by the four movement Orchestral Suite No.2 Op.11.  The music was drawn from a film score Leiviskä wrote for the 1937 film Juha directed by the Finnish avant-garde filmmaker Nyrki Tapiovaara.  There is nothing very avant-garde in the suite – the four movements respectively titled; The Coming of Spring, Humoresque, Lullaby and Epilogue.  Running to a total of 20:39, this suite is easily accessible, instantly attractive and illustrative in a way that the Sinfonia brevis does not wish or intend to be.  The Humoresque also includes elements folk-dance that is wholly absent in the rest of this programme.  So clearly Leiviskä has a wide-ranging expressive palette that she chose not to utilise in her absolute works.   To what degree the music in this score was reworked from film music to orchestral suite is not clear.  This suite emerges as illustrative for sure but not slavishly so in the way that prevents some film scores having a successful life away from the screen.  Unfortunately, in the concert hall today there seems to be little place for this kind of attractive but consciously ‘lighter’ suite.

The disc is completed by the 1954 Symphony No.2 Op.27.   In three movements this feels more substantial than the 28:39 time span would suggest.  If the suite showed Leiviskä’s natural flair for instrumental colour then this works demonstrates her skilled handling of material and form.  A key structural element is what she herself described as a “march theme” which reoccurs in different guises; “first cheerful, then vigorous and robust, and finally like a funeral march”.  This choice of a march implies some extra-musical intent which many other composers from Tchaikovsky to Mahler and Shostakovich have exploited.  In Leiviskä’s symphony the intent is not as explicit as in any of those other three but for sure it helps bind the work together for the listener.  The three movements are strongly differentiated and individually orchestrated.  Indeed, throughout the work there are few points where the shades of other composers spring up.  Tarasti comments that; “Leiviskä’s tonal style became increasingly contrapuntal and tonally free; the feeling of tonality and fullness of texture disappear almost completely”.  Although Tarasti references this in association with Leiviskä’s later works it seems clear that this process of compositional evolution is already well in hand by Symphony No.2.  The third movement Andante cantabile is intriguingly elusive – I particularly enjoyed the closing pages which combine a strikingly effective minimalist instrumentation with an emotionally ambiguous leave-taking – a solo violin gracefully evaporating into silence.  Apparently the early critical response was respectful rather than overwhelmingly positive.  That I can understand as the craft at work is immediately apparent but its sombre cool objectivity speaks more to the head than the heart.  However, repeated listenings reveal so much detail and interest which is where the recording and performance of this calibre really pays off.  This is never going to be music that grips you in a viscerally emotional way however there are insights and rewards aplenty for the attentive listener.  Further volumes in this series promise further discoveries.

Nick Barnard

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