The 2004 Mirjam Helin Competition was the first for Ilmari Räikkönen, and at 28, he was the youngest accompanist. He did already have competition experience, having played for the Timo Mustakallio Competition and the Lohja Tenor Festival, but the Mirjam Helin Competition was something quite new. “There were TV cameras, the halls were packed, and it was an international competition. It was great to be part of it,” he recalls. “There was a strong bond between us pianists throughout the competition, and I hope this came across to the audience, too.”
First-class accompaniments that support the competitor and singer do not just come about of their own accord. Räikkönen reports that in 2004, the pianists began preparing in June already, once they knew what the competition repertoire would be. “Tracking down the music was hard work, despite our careful preparations. Ilmo Ranta and I trawled the music library at the [Sibelius] Academy.”
It remained for the pianists to dig out a large volume of music and to see that the songs were in the right keys. Räikkönen finds that even though the pianist may have a moderate “basic repertoire”, playing in a different key can be laborious, because the fingers may automatically revert to the familiar patterns.
The rehearsal days were long in the run-up to the competition, because the pianists were also doing summer tours and playing at arts festivals. They did not, however, have any bad memories of the final slog, because the general atmosphere at the competition was good and the organisers did a magnificent job tending to everything and everyone.
In the 2004 competition Ilmari Räikkönen accompanied Karen Wierzba, Chung Ook and Robert Pomakov. “Pomakov was a fantastic surprise!” Räikkönen was the youngest of the pianists and Pomakov of the singers. The two struck up a friendship that did not end with the competition. “We found we were on the same musical wavelength and we felt as if we’d always been making music together.”
Räikkönen points out that in a competition, the accompanist helps the singer as much as possible. And indeed, the audience and singers usually readily acknowledge the pianists’ magnificent contribution. A spokesman for the accompanists pays tribute to the Finnish training and the Sibelius Academy. Räikkönen himself studied the piano there with Liisa Pohjola and Lied with Ilmo Ranta. “It was great working with a real master.”
Singing is highly familiar to Räikkönen, for he has been closely partnering Jorma Hynninen since the age of 15. Together they built up the staple Lied literature on which he was able to draw in the competition. He feels the closest affinity for such composers as Schubert and Wolff: “Schubert is subtle; every mood and aspect of life is present in his songs. The challenge is synchronising with the singer, being absolutely together.”