AULIS SALLINEN – Pushing the Boundaries – SQs Nos. 3, 4 and 5

Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen [born 1935] wrote five string quartets, from 1958 to 1983. The CD that I am going to discuss contains all five. I will be concentrating on Nos. 3 & 4. I’ll see how I go with No. 5. Nos. 1 & 2 can be difficult at times. They are still worthwhile pieces. It is significant they were written in his mid-twenties. I think that it is just a case of a young composer trying to be ‘modern’ and changing his philosophy with the passage of time. It’s great if this is so, for many composers have continued on the modern path, some losing their way and crossing the barrier between sound and noise. More discussion on that topic another time!

Except for String Quartet No. 1, which has three movements, all of the others are named, single-movement works.

SQ No. 3 is titled Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrikin’s Funeral March (1969). It opens as a gentle, slightly ethnic sounding march. It sounds quite attractive and made me look forward to what I was getting into. This mood persists with some minor harmonic changes for two minutes and then the pulse becomes more insistent. Dissonance starts to appear. It doesn’t last, but moves into a pizzicato section. The opening theme returns and the music wanders as the march disappears. Gentle dissonant violin sounds make for an enthralling mood as they play variations on the opening theme. Now the tempo quickens and the mood becomes conversational. First fast, then slow, now fast again and so on. It’s a dialogue between two different tempos. It then reverts to the opening march theme for a moment before a solo violin takes over, with the cello responding to the violin. The insistent tempo returns for an instant before dissolving into a folk-like passage, again slightly dissonant. Solo cello takes over now, and is then joined by the violins. This is as dissonant as it gets but it doesn’t last; it is taken out by a quiet, solo and cello passage.

SQ No. 4 is titled Quiet Songs (1971). It is exactly that! The opening sounds like a church organ with sparse playing from the quartet. The melody is simple but haunting. It continues in this manner for some three minutes until the cello tries to introduce a pulse. It doesn’t persist, but is replaced by an achingly mournful dissonant passage. A tempo establishes itself, still haunting, a little like a slow Gypsy dance. The cello touches on ethnic folk scales. There is a brief pause and then the cello and violin converse. The violins take the lead over a very soft and slow tempo. Previous segments of music constantly reappear. Suddenly, the piece becomes energised as the violin propels it forward. Then, after a time, the mood almost becomes stasis, a drone with little variation. There is a slight burst of movement before the piece ends. This is more like funeral music than the previous piece.

SQ No. 5 is titled Pieces of Mosaic (1983). It runs for 24 minutes, nearly double the length of all the other pieces on the CD. The movement opens with violin interjections which morph into a ‘fluttery’ passage, quite abstract, but beguiling. After a time, some rhythmic impetus is felt, with scales not unlike those in Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace (reviewed June 2016). European string quartet composers have often gone to folk music for inspiration and this is the case here. The tempo quickens and rhythms appear. The music is stately, with an occasional hint of chaos. Emphatic passages come to the fore in an extended section until around the 12-minute mark when it all dissolves back into nothing.

There is some subtle playing from the violins as they cry out. The loneliness is palpable – this is a desolate soundscape. The ethnic scales continue in this muted passage until finally a rhythm emerges, albeit a little disjointed. But it does give form to the section. Now the violin interjections reappear. I keep hearing its similarity to Salome but in other ways they are worlds apart. As the piece moves towards a conclusion, the anger of the interjections give way to a morose feeling. It finishes with some quiet violin flourishes.

I feel like I have been through the wringer, discussing this piece; there is no joy to be found here. But I believe this music does tell a story. We just don’t know what it is. All we have are our imaginations to make sense of such abstraction. I look forward to hearing it again in ‘non-review mode!’

The CD is titled String Quartets 1-5 and is admirably performed by the Jean Sibelius Quartet on the Ondine label. It is available at Amazon US and UK – I leave it for you to ponder.

It is on Spotify and you can hear many versions of Sallinen pushing the boundaries on YouTube. There are also multiple recordings of all Sallinen’s quartets on earsense.

Listenabilty: This is not happy music, but sometimes I like that.


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