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CD Review: Heikki Valpola/Matti Rantanen
Fire Making - Tulenteko

Matti Rantanen, accordionist, with other faculty members of the Sibelius Academy


Heikki Valpola composed all of the following works:

Marlina, 1987 (for acc & pno) [9:54]

  1. Preludio [2:15]
  2. Energico [1:08]
  3. Teneramente [3:01]
  4. Misterioso [3:30]

Three Dances, 1988 (for acc & cello) [7:36]

  1. Al rigore di tempo [2:58]
  2. Soave [2:24]
  3. Vivace [2:14]

Summer Days, 1982 (for acc, fl, gtr, & str trio) [14:40]

  1. Sprouting [3:59]
  2. Midsummer Fires Juhannustilket[4:18]
  3. Blooming Heilimoi [1:59]
  4. Shadows Varjot [4:23]

Fire Making, 1985 (for acc, pno, & perc) [9:17]

  1. Smoke Savu [3:52]
  2. Excorcism Manaus [3:01]
  3. Sparkles Kipunat [2:24]

Trois Deux, 1994 (for acc & cello) [7:23]

Ludes, 1988 (for acc, vln, & cello) [6:24]

  1. Prelude [2:21]
  2. Interlude [1:05]
  3. Postlude [2:58]

Annealing, 1993 (for acc, perc, & brass quartet) [8:46]

total time:64:46

label:Sibelius Academy (SACD 5)
Order from: Modus Musiikki Oy
PO Box 82
57101 Savonlinna

Phone 015-510 552
FAX 015-510 553

Review by Joseph Natoli:

One of my favorite composers for many years has been George Crumb. As a younger composer, I frequently tried to emulate his stylistic tendencies. What I love most about Crumb's music is the way in which he is able to build very large works and take the listener through extremes of the emotional scale with incredible economy of means and sparse motivic elements. Anton von Webern too has always been one of my favorites because like Crumb, he used an economy of means in his works, but unlike Crumb, Webern uses his frugal motivic elements to create small Japanese water colors instead of the huge epic murals of Crumb. Webern's music is a lot less dramatic than Crumb's and in fact many people have described Webern's music as emotionally sterile. Sometimes Webern's frugality is taken to the extreme, creating movements of works that are completely developed yet only 20 seconds long . However, in listening to either composer, one gets the distinct impression that not one note is out of place, and to change one detail would be like removing the bottom apple from the produce display cart at the supermarket. Such is the case with the music of Heikki Valpola in his CD Fire Making which is the focus of this review. Mr. Valpola strikes a very nice compromise between the stylistic tendencies of both Crumb and Webern in that his music is created with an economy of means, yet it is emotionally charged, full of drama, color, and direction, while the lengths of each composition are neither too long nor too short. Each is a fully developed gem, taking the listener on a musical journey that in each case completely satisfies one's musical appetite, leaving the listener neither over-stuffed nor hungry for more.

The opening piece on this CD, Marlina was strategically placed to command one's attention immediately. It is an aural delight, especially combining the accordion with the piano in a very colorful and complementary ensemble. The coloristic potential from this combination is so rich in fact, that one wonders why composers have not exploited it more frequently. Marlina is a very expertly crafted suite of four shorter pieces (the longest being 3:30) that explores every range of emotion, technique, melody, and interplay between the two instruments. Harmonically, this and other works on the CD use a technique to which I like to refer as "omnitonality". That is, many composers today seem to find the entire available harmonic palette (i.e. tonality, modality, atonality, microtonality, etc.) as equal tools in helping them construct their compositional thoughts. One or many of these approaches are often used within the scope of one composition and are not considered to be mutually exclusive of each other. Mr. Valpola is an expert at the use of omnitonality, seamlessly combining each of these elements into one composition, so that one cannot question the validity of their existence side by side. A poignant example occurs on the very first track of the CD in Preludio, where a very striking and beautiful chorale emerges from the atonality. Also, omnitonality can often be used to help build drama and tension in a composition. Mr. Valpola is an adept creator of drama in his works, which is especially evident in the second (Energico) and fourth (Misterioso) movements of Marlina, as well as in many of the other works on this CD. My only objection to the Misterioso movement is the use of loud and boisterous clusters, where Valpola uncharacteristically seems to have put them there for no good reason. This work was written during a time when clusters were quite the fad in composition, and as composers have lost their fascination with this technique with the passage of time, clusters sound even more faddish and dated, especially when they are not the result of any special motivic development. There are a few instances where these clusters are quite effective, but for the most part, they sound contrived and out of place. However, this is my only minor complaint on this CD, in an otherwise beautiful compositional achievement for the accordion.

Another discerning aspect of these compositions, which tends to set them apart from much of the original accordion literature that exists, is the maturity and depth one senses in the development process. Mr. Valpola is not afraid to take his time in developing ideas. Many original pieces that have been written for the accordion quickly descend into an exploitation of frenzied runs and technical passages without much repose or release during the course of the work. Mr. Valpola's compositional approach on the other hand, although not devoid of these highly technical passages, uses strategically placed moments of tension and repose. Consequently, when the technical passage arrives, it is a welcomed organic outgrowth of the rest of the work...not just another promiscuous use of technique for its own sake. It is like the difference between eating a quick burger/fries combination at McDonald's and a well-planned four-course meal at an elegant restaurant. With this CD, you are definitely experiencing the latter.

The slightly more accessible Summer Days is sure to be appreciated by many tastes. Very programmatic in nature, these movements contain some of the composer's very best melodic development (especially in first movement, Sprouting, and the third movement Blooming, which are both very beautiful). These moments of repose and calm are wonderfully complemented by the more exciting second movement, Midsummer Fires, and the more haunting final movement, Shadows. I would highly recommend this work for any accordionist who is looking for new accordion and chamber ensemble literature to perform.

Although I love so much about this CD, my favorite piece in the entire compilation is the title work Fire Making. It contains all of Valpola's best craftiness in terms of motivic and dramatic development, the use of color, and orchestrational technique. Again, Fire Making is very programmatic in nature, as one would expect from a very accomplished film composer. This work however really stretches the envelop in economy of means, and although it is not extremely difficult for any of the instrumentalists, one gets the sense that each and every note is strategically placed for maximum affect. Fire Making is simply a well-constructed, beautifully-organized work of art, and epitomizes all the best elements of the composer's style that I have mentioned throughout this review. The ostinato technique that reappears frequently as one of Mr. Valpola's stylistic elements, is absolutely captivating in the dramatic ascent of the second movement, Excorcism Manus. Also, this movement is the one instance where the use of clusters is particularly effective and absolutely belongs in the structure of the work as the composer builds the tension to a tremendous climax.

The accordionist, Matti Rantanen, is also to be commended for his flawless interpretations of Heikki Valpola's works. His sensitivity and technical prowess must have put an ear-to-ear smile on the composer's face during these recording sessions. The other instrumentalists in each of the ensembles were superb as well. Also, the sound engineering is impeccable. The level of each instrumentalist is appropriate during their critical passages, and none overshadows the other, with the accordion always maintaining an outstanding presence as the centerpiece of the CD.

Incidentally, did I mention that I've added a new "favorite" composer to my very selective list? Heikki Valpola is definitely on that list and I am anxious to purchase and hear more of his work, as each of you should be. Enjoy Fire Making. It is a wonderful achievement.

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