Over the past two decades, Sebastian Fagerlund has written a fabulous body of orchestral works, demonstrating marvellous craft and originality. A key aspect of Fagelund’s oeuvre is an ever-expanding series of concertos, including Darkness in Light (2012) for violin, Transit (2013) for guitar and Mana (2013-14) for bassoon, to name just a few of them.
The latest addition to the catalogue is Nomade (2018), a cello concerto commissioned by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and written for Nicolas Alstaedt. Premiered in Hamburg in February, Nomade is one of the most brilliant and elaborate works by Fagerlund.
Cast in six movements with two short interludes, the thirty-minute Nomade takes a form of sonic a journey via ravishing soundscapes. Performed attacca, save a general pause between the third and fourth movements, the music flows seamlessly through a multitude of textures, with overlapping layers of fascinating musical ideas.
Nomade opens with a broad espressivo statement from the orchestra, paving the way for the cello’s first entrance. Appearing from silence, the enchanting solo line takes prominence, joined by woodwinds and pitched percussion with sustained string accompaniment. The chamber-like textures predominate the opening movement, whereas the in the second movement, marked agitato, molto ritmico, the pace mounts, as the full orchestra is engaged in propulsive rhythms.
Following a quasi-static orchestral interlude, the cello sets the fast third movement in motion. Another feast of brilliant rhythms, the vivace capriccioso is contrasted by the most delicate section of Nomade, a luminous sarabande fifth movement, with the cello, bowed vibraphone, harp and winds woven together with ravishing beauty.
Gradually the sarabande grows into dazzlingly contrapuntal textures for full orchestra leading to the movement’s contemplative closing with the solo line floating through a sonic hue of vibraphone and stings, coloured by bass drum and crystal glasses. A twelve-bar second interlude ensues, scored for static strings alone.
At the core of the sublime fifth movement is an ad lib. cadenza, followed by a transition to esalto, molto agitato finale, unleashing the orchestra and soloist into a sonic whirlwind, with quasi-Ligetian rhythmic fluidity. After a climax, the music dissolves into an enigmatic coda leading to an intense silence.
The Finnish premiere performance with Alstaedt and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with its chief conductor Hannu Lintu at the helm, was simply outstanding. The fabulously demanding solo part was performed with utmost virtuosity and conviction by Alstaedt, whereas Lintu and the orchestra, with their unique experience in Fagerlund’s music, were a perfect match.
Livestreamed by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and recorded for a future release on disc by BIS Records, Nomade made a lasting impression upon its Finnish premiere. For all the cellists out there, check it out, there’s a new concerto in town.
Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the last one to be more or less finished, was written in 1909-10. Despite its prevailing sense of resignation, the symphony was not an intentional musical farewell. Instead, Mahler went on to write his Tenth Symphony (1910) which exists in continuous draft score, far more finished than usually assumed.
Still, the idea of being lost to the world, a key concept in all Mahler, is omnipresent in both the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09), a symphony in all but name. Cast in four movements, the Ninth Symphony follows a structural scheme of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (1893), with slow outer movements framing two fast ones.
The first movement, andante comodo, is one of the most dazzling creations in all Mahler, a vast symphonic arc lasting nearly thirty minutes. Though scored for a massive orchestra, the movement is mostly chamber music, written for ever-imaginative instrumental combinations. Only rarely does the full orchestra come together for brief tutti bursts, only to disintegrate once again into musical atoms.
The opening of the movement is quasi-Webenian, with melodic fragments scattered around the orchestra of strings, horns, harps and clarinets. Gradually other instruments join, and the musical material starts to take shape. With its utmost textural transparency and fragility, the first movement calls for a huge ensemble of virtuoso chamber musicians and a conductor with an impeccable sense of pacing and architecture.
Lintu and the wonderful musicians of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra gave an absolutely shattering performance of the opening movement. Marvellously balanced and paced, their journey through the andante comodo was a deeply moving shared experience, though demanding, yet most rewarding.
The two middle movements, a grotesque ländler and a violent rondo-burleske, form a contrasting pair of dancescapes, one rural, the other urban. In both movements, textures and harmonies are stretched on the edge of catastrophe, with the music barely holding together in its sardonic turmoil.
Rarely have I encountered a performance so well balanced between careful attention to detail and the unhindered execution of those extreme emotional tensions at the core of the music, than with Lintu and the Finnish RSO. The fine details of Mahler’s orchestration and harmony, often more or less muddied in a live performance, stood out with admirable clarity without any compromise on the intensity of the music.
The closing adagio, a twenty-five-minute evaporation process leading to a complete silence and standstill, was well shaped, without any exaggeration. An enthralling conclusion to a riveting symphonic journey.
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu, conductor
Nicolas Alstaedt, cello
Sebastian Fagerlund: Nomade – Concerto for violoncello and orchestra (2018, Finnish premiere)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (1909-10)
Helsinki Music Centre
Wednesday 10 April, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio