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True musical meaning

Finnish pianist Risto Lauriala talks to BILL NEWMAN


Queensborough Terrace, London W2 runs parallel to Queensway, a favourite shopping stop on London's Central Line Underground with its Bohemianesque touches adding a somewhat innocent, nostaligic crankiness that charms tourists. According to one's chosen approach -- either from Queensway itself, or from Bayswater Tube Station, on a different line -- the commuter can choose the more familiar, direct approach via the Bayswater Road that skirts London's Hyde Park, or negotiate the more complex trek that at first leads one down, then across via Porchester Gardens and up again, parallel to almost the direct point across from one's original starting point. There is no short cut, unfortunately. Audrey Ellison, that most dependable and musically intuitive of agents, presumably wished to avoid the more expensive, more complex hotel sitings to make it easier and more restful for the quiet-spoken Mr Lauriala!

I had a vision of a line of these monster dwelling places, all displaying the various flags of the world, as if to acknowledge parity towards all and no one country in particular. Roughly in the middle, was my port of call. Inside, the ageing Manager-Receptionist invited me to yell into his telephone. Yes, my musical colleague would come down from his room to meet me! On arrival, Risto's slightly cynical smile indicated that, apart from his English language problem, some unusual interruptions might be forthcoming. Facing one another on creaky swing seats situated at the top of the stairs, with gaudy overhead lighting giving a sinister, rather than a warmly welcoming effect, we had hardly got started with our pleasantries when a bloodcurdling shriek followed by a battery of bangs and crashes ascended from the lower depths.

'Rather noisy!' His wise grin suggested that other bizarre occasions would occur, where warlike connotations might suddenly became the order of the day. We laughed heartily, and I prepared myself once more. Lauriala, who has made about six previous widely spaced visits to London showed interest in my past artist interviews for monthly magazines, nowadays on the internet. A Naxos CD advert displayed his skills in the solo piano music of Selim Palmgren, a favourite romantic composer from his native Finland, but was he aware of the two Finnish Dances that Benno Moiseiwitsch had recorded as fillers to the Grieg Concerto on 78rpm? 'I think I heard his name from somewhere, but some years ago about four or five Finnish pianists played all of his music, and the Concertos were with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra.'

Risto Lauriala
Risto Lauriala

I started to rack my brains. What was the name of the Scandinavian pianist who came from Oslo. Kjell Baekkelund! Such an intimate artist, who extracted national feeling from every bar and phrase. 'He played the music, and Grieg and Sibelius, everywhere. But other Scandinavian composers are less known. Naxos CDs are beginning to introduce them to the world.' Like Rautavaara. 'Yes. The Piano Sonata, St Christof and the Fishes that he composed in 1969/70. And Narcissus, an impressionist piece written for the first Helsinki Piano Competition held two years ago.' Lauriala included both in his St John's Smith Square recital last year. The Debussy-like Narcissus came the day following the composer's 75th birthday. Most of the admired Rautavaara's works though, are more aleotoric and far-reaching, reflecting various aspects of Finnish life. Lauriala finds them challenging and rewarding to play, but I reminded him of Magnus Lindberg, and Kalevi Aho, whose works I also revere, especially his Nine Symphonies. Osmo Vanska has introduced them to Scottish audiences during his tenure with their BBC Orchestra.

Is it post-romantic feelings that make these works easier to understand? 'Yes, and their dramatic qualities. I particularly like Rautavaara; less so Aho.' Rautavaara has written a Third Piano Concerto for Vladimir Ashkenazy -- which he has recorded. There are a number of works by Finnish composers -- he quoted two -- who are rarely known or performed outside their native country. 'To make a career as a pianist, one has to look elsewhere.' But Ashkenazy now conducts more than performing on the piano, so outside his direction of the Czech Philharmonic and guest appearances with other orchestras, he is free to move around Europe. Do you take part in various European Festivals? 'Mainly in Finland, only.'

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Copyright © 4 March 2004 Bill Newman, Edgware UK


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