As we hurtle towards the new millennium, religious sensibilities are once again enlisting the arts – and music in particular – as essential allies. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s contribution was sparked off by a seminal childhood experience, and although grounded in the faith of the Finnish Orthodox Church, Vigilia somehow manages to excavate a spiritual path beyond the confines of denominational dogma. Rautavaara’s delicious blend of ancient and modern modes is pointedly exemplified in the “First Katisma” (track 3), where soprano and contralto, then tenor and baritone, proclaim “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly”. There, the harmonic drift is decidedly ‘post-renaissance’, whereas the “Alleluias” that follow update to ‘post-romantic’ and the subsequent assurance that “the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous” brings us on line with the wistful, nature-loving Rautavaara of the Seventh Symphony and Cantus arcticus. The a cappella Vigilia was a joint commission from the Helsinki Festival and the Finnish Orthodox Church; the original Evening and Morning Services date from 1971 and 1972, respectively, with this concert version following on later. Possible influences include Bartok, Stravinsky and Messiaen, though early music is a more palpable prompt and Rautavaara himself is always the leading voice.
Rautavaara’s employment, or rather absorption, of ancient modes runs roughly parallel with Steve Reich’s in works such as Tehillim and Proverb, though by contrast with Reich, harmonic colouring takes its lead from poetic imagery rather than from the sounds of specific words. Take, for example, the crescendoing arrival of the “Psalm of Invocation” (track 4), haunting but propulsive and vividly expressive of religious entreaty; or the “Sticheron of Invocation” that follows (track 5 – the text deals with the lust surrounding John the Baptist’s gruesome execution), where the sopranos intone wailing downward glissandos (“a traditional feature of the ancient Byzantine liturgy”, Rautavaara tells us) and bass Jyrki Korhonen exhibits his spectacular vocal range. “Lord, have mercy” (track 10) descends in gentle clusters; Jesus’s Ascension from the cross (track 11) is related by Korhonen on a wide upward glissando with dramatic choral declamations of redemption, and the “Troparion” (track 12) opens to a euphonious “Amen” and a whispered celebration of the Mother of God.
The “Troparion of the Feast” (track 13) has the conversational manner of folk music; the otherwise quiet-voiced “Troparion of the Resurrection” (track 19) climaxes to the exultant affirmation “He is risen from the tomb” (2'17'') and the “Final Blessing” that closes both the Vespers and Matins (tracks 14 and 34, respectively) recalls Vaughan Williams. Vigilia uses variation technique to impressive effect; it is a refreshingly open-hearted piece, one that – whether sombre or celebratory, traditional or innovative – grants ritual narrative a vibrant voice and should earn its composer wide-scale recognition. If you want to ‘dip your toe’, then play track 3 first. The performance is beautifully sung and the recording bold and realistic.'