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Finnish Choral Classics VII: Joonas Kokkonen, Laudatio Domini

Joonas Kokkonen belongs to the category of composers who were dominant figures in their day and yet somewhat neglected soon after it. Kokkonen (1921–1996) wore many hats besides being the foremost Finnish composer through 1960 to 1980: he was professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy, a member of the Finnish Academy and occupied important positions in pretty much all the central classical music organizations. Besides being in dominant positions, Kokkonen could in addition be quite domineering. He had a huge bass voice that could cut down any opposing views like a scythe. As a young man, I felt Kokkonen’s figure belonged to another time; one of authority and austerity. Erik Bergman, our Classic composer number four, was ten years older than Kokkonen, yet cut a much more modern figure, full of puerile humor and joie de vivre.

Joonas Kokkonen at work 

But there is no doubt Kokkonen was a wonderful composer. Looking back, he seems the most ‘sibelian’ of the post-war generation. He was above all a symphonist and his works were developed rigorously from limited musical material.  Forged with sweat and great willpower, was the feeling. His fame is mainly based on four symphonies and his opera The Last Temptations, but I would also recommend his works for string orchestra (Music for String Orchestra and Durch Ein Spiegel), as well as his expansive Requiem. His choral works are limited, but feature two major works: Missa a cappella (1963) and Laudatio Domini (1966).

Kokkonen started out as something of a neo-classicist, went through a dodecaphonic period and, in time, found a balanced, individual voice. Laudatio Domini, a suite with five movements set to texts from the Book of Psalms, is our seventh Finnish choral classic. This almost fifteen-minute work is scored predominantly for six voices (SMsATBarB). Despite the five movements being very different in character and feeling, everything is developed with rigor from a core material consisting of a whole tone and a pure fourth. The amazing thing is that even though the harmonies are mainly tertian, some of the melodic lines contain (complete or incomplete) dodecaphonic rows – a technique Einojuhani Rautavaara would later use in some of his finest works. Another characteristic worth noting is the balance of the homophonic and contrapuntal passages that combined with the harmonic language creates a sonority uncommon in most of the ambitious choral music of the 1960s.

The first movement, Laudate Dominum, is based on Psalm 148 (Praise the Lord from the heavens). It opens with an evocative passage with pent up energy that is released into a lilting theme developed throughout the movement. The way Kokkonen ‘orchestrates’ his six voice parts is intricate and expressive. The second movement, Vox Domini, is in turn a setting of two verses of Psalm 29 (The voice of the Lord is over the waters). Kokkonen divides the voices at best into twelve parts, with a prominent solo soprano leading the way. The textures are ever varying, but there is still a strong sense of linearity, almost inevitability to the writing. It easy to hear how Kokkonen has wanted to create a feeling of the voice of God reverberating on the waters.

Qui emittis in fontes (He makes springs pour water into the ravines), a setting of six verses from Psalm 104, is a leggiero movement, delighting in the beauty of the earth and the rains given from above. The juxtaposition of the upper and lower voices, unison passages, the birdlike soprano solo, and variation of homophonic and polyphonic passages form an elegant, radiant and organic whole. The contrast to the fourth movement, Reverti jubes (You turn men back to dust, from Psalm 90) is striking. After a strong incipit, much of the movement is built on an ostinato in the male voices, which could be seem interpreted as a memento mori. In the last movement, Alleluia, Kokkonen returns to the bright tones of Psalm 104 (May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord). The composer seems to gather much of the material of the previous movements to form a large Coda of sorts and the ending is as jubilant as is to expected at the end of such a large-scale choral work.

Laudatio Domini has proved its longevity over the years, but I still think it deserves more international attention than it has received. This is excellent choral music on all possible levels from clear structures to wonderful sonorities; neo-classical clarity to powerful expressivity; and diligently wrought vocal lines to rich harmonies.

The playlist includes two versions of Laudatio Domini. The choral version is The Key Ensemble with Teemu Honkonen conducting and the ensemble version features Lumen Valors (Kajsa Dahlbeck, soprano solo). I wanted to feature these two recordings to show how the work can be approached successfully in many different ways.






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