Portraits is the third Alba disc from Juha Kangas and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and the first to be issued in the Hybrid SACD format. The sound, primarily, is terrific, and places the listener in a warm ambience almost in the middle in this group of about 20 players. Although Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances and Grieg's Two Melodies, Op. 53, are old friends, most of this music has not seen much, if any, exposure on CD. Although composed in 1916, Max Bruch's Serenade on Swedish Folk Melodies appears to be a recording premiere, and the remaining selections are by contemporary composers. Pehr Nordgren's Portraits of Country Fiddlers is an agreeable suite of dances that may remind American listeners of bluegrass to a small extent, whereas Aulis Sallinen's Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March is an ambitious and serious deconstruction of a popular Finnish folk tune. Pekka Jalkanen's The Serf of Viro is a milestone of Finnish minimalism that stands somewhat halfway between Philip Glass and the tougher side of Estonian musicians such as Arvo Pärt; one would like to hear more from Jalkanen, as this is very good. Einojuhani Rautavaara's Ostrobothnian Polka is the most unruly sounding work on Portraits, but it is a wild ride, and for some will prove a mercifully short one.
Portraits is intelligently programmed -- while it is mostly made up of unfamiliar contemporary music, the two or three more familiar pieces help both to subdue and properly frame the newer works. It is strongly recommendable to those who already have a taste for folk-derived classical string music with a bit of bite.