in From the Archives

Liisa Pohjola: “I’ve always wanted to look upon something which no one else has ever seen before”

by Anu Karlson

One afternoon in March 1997, while the eyes of the world were trained on the official residence of the Finnish President where Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin were engaged in dialogue, pianist Liisa Pohjola and composer Usko Meriläinen were ensconced in a Helsinki restaurant only a mile away for a cosy chat about music and performance.

Liisa Pohjola, Professor of the piano at the Sibelius Academy since 1976, has always been a champion of new music throughout her career as a musician. In addition to premiering numerous Finnish solo piano works and concertos (among them many by Meriläinen), she regularly performs them at concerts both in Finland and abroad and has been recording them ever since the 1960s.

Like Erik Bergman and Einojuhani Rautavaara, Usko Meriläinen, a pupil of Aarre Merikanto, went to study with Vladimir Vogel in the late 1950s, returning with a bunch of fresh ideas. In the course of his travels through neoclassicism, expressionism and dodecaphony he developed a style all of his own, the dominant element of which is, in Liisa Pohjola’s opinion, the presence of nature.

LP: How Finnish musical life has changed since the late 1950s and early 1960s! The profile of both the professional composer and the professional artist was quite different in those days. The only way a musician could make a living was by finding gigs in restaurants or by doing some completely other sort of job.

On the other hand, artists commanded a certain respect. There were so few of them compared with today, and they were ‘common property’ in a way they are not today, because they were constantly on tour in Finland. Ostrobothnia, where I lived as a child, was visited by artists every year, and we always looked forward to their visits so much: Aulikki Rautawaara, Anja Ignatius, Timo Mikkilä, Lea Piltti… an opera troupe led by Alfons Almi; a piano trio doubling as a whole orchestra, playing works like Cavalleria rusticana and Die Fledermaus. And the concerts were usually packed.

Sometimes it was terribly difficult to get hold of copies of music. It was very rare for new works to be printed. In most cases we had to study them from the manuscripts… luckily Usko here has a neat hand! Even so, I miss those days!

UM: You’re right. After the war the Finns had a tremendous thirst for culture. You didn’t just go along to the cinema in those days, you always had to book beforehand. The place for concerts in Tampere was the town hall – beautiful but small for an orchestra. But we heard some of the great masters there: Rubinstein, Alexander Hellman, and dozens of Finnish artists, and they would give recitals of their own.

One thing must be said for the Tampere Philharmonic and Eero Kosonen: they were always performing new Finnish music. It was a matter of honour for Kosonen that if a new work was premiered in Helsinki, then the second performance had to be in Tampere. It was an excellent principle! The orchestra was in fact well trained in the performance of new music.

Hot, cold, lukewarm

LP: In the olden days there were not nearly so many concert pianists, either. So the few of us who were on the circuit had our hands full all the time: we regularly got invited both to appear as soloists and to give recitals.

Even so I very soon felt I wanted to try something new and unfamiliar. One of the first modern pieces I performed in public was Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ. To me it is one of the most complex and most enigmatic works Messiaen ever wrote. This is just the sort of music I tended to choose: strange, enchanting, remote and difficult!

I remember some of the reactions in the press: “like elephants dancing on the piano keys,” said one; and “Quo vadis?” asked another critic at the end of his review. And when I performed new Finnish piano works, such as yours, Usko, people called out in horror with things like, “you’ll ruin your technique”, or they would ask me, “do you really want to make a career playing music like that?”. I even received letters reproaching me for playing “blasphemous music”.

What a colourful, active, lively time it was! People in those days weren’t indifferent, “lukewarm”. Nowadays it seems you can perform just anything, however new and peculiar. Nothing shakes people in the same way.

Nature, air, movement

LP: I well remember how I first came into contact with your music. It was sometime in the early 1970s. I was busy doing something at home and listening to the radio. The music they were playing soon caught my attention – so much so that I really sat down to listen. Right then and there I phoned you to ask whether you could possibly compose something for my next concert. And the result was the third sonata.

UM: Oh that’s right, I remember now. Then came the fourth sonata, which I also dedicated to you.

LP: The very first thing that springs to mind in connection with your music – I don’t know how you feel about it – is nature.

UM: I suppose it must be. It’s obvious, I live surrounded by it. But this shouldn’t be taken too narrowly of course. Remember that I grew up in what at the time we called modernism, but which was really neoclassicism. Then I studied dodecaphonic techniques and serialism in Germany… really and truly I have run through the whole range of styles that have been ‘in’ and ‘out’ in Europe from the 1950s onwards. But I have never adopted any of them as such.

I, too, have something of a reputation as a musical constructor, but in actual fact intuition is of the utmost importance to me. Without it I am lost.

LP: Your works have a sort of Mozart- or Chopin-like element in that you can say who composed them on hearing a single bar, if it’s played well. It has a fragrance all of its own, unlike any other.

UM: It’s interesting you should mention Mozart. I, too, have noticed one feature we have in common: just as Mozart never ends a piece on with a tremendous flourish, I too think of my music as continuing somewhere beyond the sounding reality, in an indeterminate space and time. Only to rise to the surface again in the next piece. And by the way, Mozart and I were born on the same day!

LP: So what about this special fragrance? I’m now talking chiefly about the piano works, because they’re the ones I know best. One fundamental element is to my mind movement – the presence of air and movement, and then silence. Am I right?

UM: They’re good words, yes. A composition must have Lebensraum, room to strive upwards.

All composers have their own notation

UM: What do you think about the instructions in scores full of signs and explanations invented by the composer?

LP: This, to my mind, is where experience helps, you learn by doing. All composers, historical ones too, have their own method of notation. To me, the notation used by Beethoven, for example, reflects the struggle he had to express his musical intentions on paper. Chopin’s notation is quite different in spirit. Interpreting the notations of the different composers is very important to me. Over the years I have had some terrific adventures with my pupils in the mystical world of notation.

UM: I sometimes say of Chopin and Liszt that – to exaggerate slightly – they must not be played exactly as they are written. In addition to being art music, they are also folk tradition. You have to know what a mazurka is.

LP: Chopin would appear to have been widely performed even during his lifetime, and many people have left their mark on the original text, which often confuses the image of Chopin’s original idea; the idea of nuance. The problem is rather similar with modern notation. You have to try and find – to use your own expression – “the red moment of inspiration” – to read between the lines, to see behind the facade.

The early music boom is to my mind helping us to approach new music, too. Our concept of music, our history of music, is spreading in both directions, going further and further afield.

UM: Take the madrigal, for example. Major-minor tonality already existed at the time madrigals were being written, but it was nowhere near so well established as during the Baroque. The madrigals of the 14th century never fail to astonish us with their harmonies; they have some magnificent combinations which you will no longer find in the slightly stereotyped key system of the Baroque – as in Vivaldi, for example.

It all springs from childhood

LP: I have always, ever since I was a child, had a strange need to discover new things, to look upon something which no one else has ever seen before. I had an enviable childhood. I grew up with gypsies, horsemen, soldiers, Karelian evacuees, Russian prisoners of war, middle-class ladies, peddlers and folk musicians. My childhood was coloured by a mixture of security and horrifying yet tantalising freedom.

The freedom to interpret – when the bird has flown from the nest

LP: Experience brings freedom, but only with responsibility, of course. I ask the composer’s opinion if I feel it would be a good idea and if I have the opportunity; otherwise I use my own discretion.

UM: I must say your decisions have always seemed justified to me. And if at any time I have had a slightly different view of, say, tempos, your view has always proved to be right in the end.

LP: I’ve been a pianist and a teacher for so long that I feel quite at home with the great historical and piano literature. So I maybe have a clear view of the tradition on which a new composition rests. Composers do not, I have noticed, always like this. They would prefer to be phenomena in their own right.

Nor are you composers always aware just what will work. Tempo is an example here. So you either try to achieve some impossible tempo, just trusting to your luck, or you sacrifice something else…pianists may have to make decisions such as this. I’ve had some very heated discussions about this with Paavo Heininen.

UM: We composers greatly appreciate having good performers who really try to get inside our works. It’s always worth making a note of what the performer says.

Usko Meriläinen, composer

LP: On the other hand I don’t consider it particularly important for a work to be truly “pianistic”, for it to “sit under the fingers”.

There are some composers whose music is like wax on the keys: Chopin, Debussy, Skryabin… Then there are composers who have different ideas, the great symphonists, for example. I don’t see why Beethoven should be expected to write works to fit the pianist’s hands, because his ideas lay in a completely different direction. He just so happened – and thank God he did – to compose magnificent music for the piano, too. Like the gypsy woman who predicted the future when I was a child, I would say that the piano works of Sibelius the symphonist, which have so far tended to be looked down upon, will in the years to come experience a tremendous rise in prestige.




Selected Discography

Liisa Pohjola’s recordings mostly date from the vinyl era and only few of them have been reproduced on CD. Because these recordings are, however, of great importance as documents of Finnish piano music and the Finnish art of interpretation, we decided to include a selection of them.

Usko Meriläinen: Tre notturni. Sonatas for Piano No. 3 & No. 4.
EMI HMV 063-35064 (1974)

Erkki Salmenhaara: Sonatas for Piano No. 1 & No. 2.
EMI HMV 063-35065 (1974)

Paavo Heininen: Sonatina della primavera.
Konserttikeskus KKLP 174 (1975)

Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 17 in D minor.
Erik Bergman: Erik Bergman: Concertino da camera. Anton Webern: Concerto for 9 Instruments.
Love Records LRLP 228 (1976)

Leevi Madetoja: Kuoleman puutarha. Sonatina for Violin and Piano (with Paavo Pohjola).
Fennica Nova LP FENO 6 (1987)

Toivo Kuula: Piano Trio. Aarre Merikanto: Preludio for Violin and Piano. Segerstam: Poem. (with Paavo Pohjola, violin, and Ensti Pohjola, cello). Ligeti: Musica ricercata.
BIS CD 56 (1979/89)

Kalevi Aho: Sonata for Piano. Béla Bartók: Three Studies, Op. 18; Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs.
Finlandia FA 332 (1981)

Erik Bergman: Sonatina. Intervalles. Omaggio a Christoforo Colombo. Borealis (with José Ribera).
Sibelius Academy SACD 3 (1991; live recording from the 80th birthday concert of Erik Bergman)

Erik Bergman: Omaggio a Christoforo Colombo. Paavo Heininen: Cinq moments de jour. Mikko Heiniö: Ritornelli. Juhani Nuorvala: 5 bagatelles.
Helsinki Biennale SACD 4 (1993)


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 2/1997

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