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The true value of instrumental virtuosi lies not so much in their technical wizardry but in their ability to stretch composers and inspire good music. That the Finnish clarinettist Kari Krikku is one of the leading stretchers and inspirers is beyond doubt: no one present at the UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto a few years ago will forget it.
Krikku had already made his mark with Jukka Tiensuu’s Poro, which now apparently ranks as the second-most-performed Finnish concerto after Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Tiensuu (b.1948) – a leading voice in Finland’s vibrant contemporary music scene – has followed it up with a second concerto, Missa, which received its first performance at the weekend in a Scottish Chamber Orchestra programme conducted by John Storgards.
Missa’s seven movements are named after parts of the Latin Mass but bear no obvious resemblance to it. What they add up to is a one-character opera, quixotic in personality and seductive to the ear. The solo part avoids the long-breathed, lyrical arcs associated with the clarinet, offering instead a vocabulary of highly animated sounds and quick-witted voices. It self-communes, sings, whispers, dances, rhapsodises and occasionally speaks – courtesy of a double-stopping technique that requires the soloist to vocalise through the instrument. The orchestra, as light-footed and chimerical as the solo clarinet, plays a submissive role, at one point creating a reverberant echo-effect of the soloist’s muted calls.
It’s not the showpiece Krikku might have expected: the music is more inward-looking than outwardly flamboyant and there’s not much dramatic contrast or structural development. Nevertheless, its elusive, sprite-like quality will encourage other clarinettists to tussle with its conundrums, even if they do not inhabit the music as effortlessly as Krikku, who really is a phenomenon – so un-narcissistic, so much the vessel of the composer’s imagination.
Thanks to Krikku, Tiensuu’s new concerto was easily the most interesting component in an otherwise earthbound Nordic programme ending with Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, whose taped bird-cries are an all-too-obvious mask for the music’s banality.