I give this box set five stars because all the music it contains is beautiful, overflowing with aspirations to deep humanity and an ecstatic reverence for the glories of nature and of man. If you have loved his music enough to buy his symphonies, Rautavaara: The 8 Symphonies - Limited Edition Box
, then this set is their natural complement, and together they will probably provide all the purely instrumental music of Rautavaara you will really need. I say this having arrived at the judgement that he is not a Great composer in the ponderous, earnest sense that bedevils classical music criticism with so much paradox. His ideas, though often startling, are not of particular theoretical depth, mostly having evolved from a highly successful formula of juxtaposing spicy modernistic devices against warm, friendly and often unashamedly Romantic backdrops. His works always show a depth and intellectual weight that makes them more satisfying than other post-modern favourites like Part or Tavener, but scratch them hard enough and you will come to the bottom of them. They do not contain a lifetime of fresh discovery in the way that the works of the truly Great composers do. Nonetheless, I place his works on a level with the likes of say Rachmaninov or Respighi, whose sheer humanity and sincerity of communicative intent lifts them outside the rough and tumble arena of critical judgement. In Rautavaara's case one must also acknowledge his profound ambition with regard to the sacred places that he seeks to transport us to. A species of sanctity that would redefine the meaning of the word Spiritual for our secular, humanistic age. In fact, for those looking for fuller and more rounded artistic rigour in Rautavaara's output then I would encourage them to explore the operas. His powers as dramatist and librettist fully complement those of the composer, and one starts to suspect that the orchestral works are merely workshops in which the musical components of the operas are forged. The two operas with which I am familiar, Rautavaara: Vincent
and Rautavaara: The House of the Sun
, are both works of deeply humbling visionary power, that would stand entirely as stage works in their own right, devoid of any musical trappings.
Still, the Concertos! All of them are good to my ears. Among the more surprising, though that is not to say better, is that for Flute which manages to explore far more gritty territory than you might expect from the instrument. Then there is the Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet and Symphonic Wind that is idiosyncratic even by Rautavaara's standards, veering as it does towards the domains explored by the likes of Lutoslawski and Ligeti. The Concerto for Double Bass is made the more interesting by its extensive explorations of the instrument's upper registers, thereby taking us into a quite novel soundworld. However, the disc I find myself most drawn to, again and again, is that which contains the piano concertos, which I also know from their fine Naxos label versions, and all three of which have huge momentum and the power to sweep one off one's feet. providing a small-r romantic experience akin to falling in love. There is the obligatory inclusion of his most popular and best known work, the Cantus Arcticus, which I suppose in this context is deemed a concerto for taped bird song. Despite the plethora of versions of this work already in circulation, there is such a profound, almost pagan, holiness of purpose to it that any impatience with its recurrence is unthinkable.
One might wish for fuller notes on the man and the works than the somewhat brief ones provided, and I still look forward to the possibility, one day, of a useful biography in English. The photo of the young Rautavaara on the box, looking very natty in his Homburg is also rather charming.