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A cross-section of Finnish contemporary piano

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

Pianist Ville Hautakangas has brought together a cast of composers of different ages, whose musical backgrounds and starting points highlight the full richness of contemporary music.

In the field of contemporary music, as in all of our society, the logic of the attention economy prevails, so solo piano music tends to fall through the cracks. A major recent project by pianist Ville Hautakangas brings a welcome boost to contemporary piano: in 2017, he commissioned 12 new piano pieces with a grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which he premiered in Tampere in 2019-21 and recorded for this album.

Typically for modest Finns, the background of the project is described on the very last page of the booklet. This presentation could have been printed more prominently, as such cultural acts are so crucial for contemporary music in a small country.

It is especially pleasing that the Tampere pianist’s 12 Premieres project is based outside the capital region. All composers have connections to Tampere, Finland. The project is also a tribute to composer Jouni Kaipainen (1956-2015), a long-time teacher of composition at the Tampere University of Applied Sciences, where he had a significant impact on a new generation of composers. Cecilia Damström’s Epitaph, which opens the album on a strong note, is specifically an homage to Kaipainen.

The Tampere region is summed up in the title of Henri Sokka’s work entitled Völjy (a local dialect word meaning together). Representing Sokka’s post-minimalist sonic ecstasy, the track is the most expansive on this double album, a breath of warm air amid many introverted works.

Still, it’s not as if the music on the album is a grey mass. On the contrary, Hautakangas has brought together a cast of composers of different ages, whose musical backgrounds and starting points highlight the full richness of contemporary music. At the same time, there are also constant parallels between the pieces. Hautakangas plays freshly, with an attentive ear to each work’s own perspective. However, the recording sounds acoustically quite detached; I would have liked more warmth in it.

All the compositions work pianistically well, are up-to-date and approachable. Hopefully, many of them end up in the repertoire of contemporary music concerts and piano recitals. None are very extreme in one direction or another, but rather have a common thread of intimacy – after all, the piano has always been a personal instrument for composers, even a form of writing board for their thoughts. Many of the works have an immediate, diary-like feel, especially Tuomas Turriago’s SomberIlari Laakso’s Häivä is an impressionistic snapshot of Cádiz’s Cathedral Square, shifting between lingering and bustling moods. Jami Kianto’s Häviöjuhlat is an example of reflective piano poetry.

Minna Leinonen’s Rememoror, inspired by a loved one’s memory disorder, is one of the best works on the album, conveying the degradation of memory with a fine-grained, high-definition texture. Plucking the piano strings is very successfully used to convey memory loss. 

The use of electronics and preparations is represented by Matilda Seppälä’s Inner, where the electronics part rises from deep within the piano. It feels as if the piano is a living being that reacts when touched. Still, in terms of the textures played, the piece is traditional, naturally combining different aspects of the instrument. On the other hand, Jonne Valtonen’s finely conceived 14.4k_Handshake, is entirely electronic. The work conjures nostalgia for the whirring and beeping of modems from the early days of the internet, born as a result of both the played piano part and post-processing of it. 

A seam of performance art also emerges in the project: Paavo Korpijaakko’s Last Night It Was Visited by Laura Palmer is a Twin Peaks-inspired mini-drama in which the pianist also utters sounds, producing a sort of speech bubbles. When performed live, the work is highly staged, but the lack of this on the album doesn’t really matter, as the end result is a kind of radio play. This postmodernist work is also linked to tradition through its nocturne-like elements. 

Indeed, awareness of tradition is present in many works, not as direct quotations but embedded in the starting point of the works, reflecting the nature of the piano as an instrument. Damström’s Epitaph, with its funeral march, alludes to the centuries-old topos of memorial compositions and evokes Liszt’s étude tradition. Aleppo2017 by Petri Nieminendepicts the numb anxiety caused by the condition of war, its tone-row technique connecting it to clean-lined twentieth-century modernism. 

Roope Mäenpää’s Kolloidi refers to the materiality of wood. The piece is one of the most beautiful on the album, a classical piano miniature in shape and playing style, reminiscent of Sibelius’s The Trees. At the same time, it has a tactile materiality that subtly brings in the meta-level of playing and composing.

Another delicate track is the minimalist, melodic Fractum by Janne Salmenkangas, which weaves into a subtly beautiful entity, inspired by a cobweb.


Ville Hautakangas: 12 Premieres – Contemporary Finnish Piano Music

Alba Records, 2023


Translation: Wif Stenger