In May 1918, in Viipuri (Vyborg), the 34-year-old Toivo Kuula was killed in what seems to have been an accidental shooting (apparently by a drunken soldier celebrating victory in the Finnish Civil War). His death conferred on him the same legendary "what if" status as Rikard Nordraak (1842–66) had earned half-a-century earlier in Norway: here were two composers of enormous talent, each showing signs of considerable individuality, and each potentially important, in cultural-political terms, to his emergent young country.
Kuula was Sibelius’ first composition student, and most of the music here seems to have been written sub specie magistris: many of these 20 pieces could be exchanged with those in Sibelius’ various collections of miniatures, and not many folk would notice. Even so, the Air varié, written when Kuula was fifteen, shows that the style was with him early.
Another linking feature of many of these works is the despondent mood: the constant introversion suggests, indeed, that Kuula might have been a depressive – the Wedding March, the second of the three pieces that constitute Op. 3b, written when he was a student, could also serve as a funeral march, and the music in general has a commonality of mood with both Alkan and Mahler.
The keyboard skill required ranges from what one might expect of a good amateur to a standard much more demanding, as in the Lampaanpolska, a five-minute set of variations on La Folia, although nothing here is flashily virtuosic. Indeed, rather the reverse is true: Kuula can create a powerful sense of atmosphere – I won’t fall back on the cliché of "brooding northern forests", but you know what I mean – with remarkably few notes, and this fondness for heroic understatement suggests that he might have made a most impressive symphonist. We’ll never know.
Janne Oksanen, whose first recording this is, is a reliable guide to this music, although he does have a slight tendency to bang at the keyboard in Kuula’s block chords – in works like the Funeral March, Op. 26, No. 6, and Lampaanpolska; he’s better where Kuula gives him something to keep his fingers busy.
Alba has given him a fairly natural piano tone –necessarily so, given the degree of exposure of individual notes. A release of this music by Adam Johnson on the Grand Piano label last year beat Oksanen to the draw, but it’s good to see a Finnish player making this music his own, and though there’s not much to choose between the two players, Oksanen has the edge in his projection of atmosphere and feeling.
KUULA: Complete Piano Pieces
Janne Oksanen (piano)
Alba ABCD 445