Seppo Pohjola: Symphonies nos 1 & 2 / Finnish Radio SO; Sakari Oramo, conductor


The Alba record label has been committed to the music of Finnish composer Seppo Pohjola for nearly a decade. This new recording of Pohjola's Symphony No. 1 (2002) and Symphony No. 2 (2006) follows recordings by Alba of the composer's earlier chamber music and two short operas.

Coming from a long line of eminent Finnish musicians, Seppo Pohjola was born in 1965. His two older brothers played flute and cello in the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. Sadly, both passed on early, and his First Symphony is dedicated to their memory.

Both symphonies are in four continuous movements, each marked only with a Roman numeral I-IV. They are powerful works, calling to mind music of Shostakovich, Bartok, Stravinsky and Nielsen. The dynamic range that Pohjola calls for from the orchestra is huge, with sudden transitions from music that you strain to hear to outbursts that can make you jump (you've been warned!). In one impressive section, a driving rhythm by the snare drum presses the music on, punctuated by brass, percussion and piccolos for a brutal and sometimes roof-raising effect. The Finnish Radio Symphony under Sakari Oramo executes masterfully. No matter how much they overwhelm you in sound, there's this feeling that they can give a little bit more; they play at this point of balance where an orchestra is at its most powerful.

In the First Symphony, Pohjola makes use of quotations from very familiar sources - An die Freude from Beethoven's 9th, the plainchant setting of the Latin hymn Dies Irae, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and further quotations from Bach, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. The significance of these quotations is not made clear, but as the work is a dedication to the memory of his two brothers - both extraordinary musicians - perhaps the meaning lies there.

Of the two symphonies, I enjoyed the First more. The melodic lines are longer, the development of them more interesting and the work as a whole seems more genuinely expressive. Seppo Pohjola completed Symphony No. 3 in 2011. It will be very interesting to hear how it is different from these earlier two.