Guest-conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic this week, the Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös is a welcome visitor indeed. With a fascinating catalogue of works for stage and the concert hall, Eötvös’ music is a fabulous combination of impeccable craft and endless imagination.
For his appearance at the Helsinki Music Centre, Eötvös had devised a wonderful programme, including two of his own, recent scores.
The opening piece, Alle vittime senza nome (2016), dedicated to the refugees from Africa and the Middle East, is a portrayal of the Mediterranean of our times. Scored for large orchestra and cast in three movements, Alle vittime senza nome can be percieved as a harsh contemporary counterpart to Claude Debussy’s eloquent La Mer (1903-05).
The music begins with a solo violin, joined by woodwinds, lower strings, percussion, and finally, brass. Within the diversity of melodic and harmonic material, references to the multi-cultural background of the Mediterranean refugees can be heard. With the solo violin, one can draw parallels with the closing movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888), depicting Sinbad’s ship in a storm.
Despite these connections, Alle vittime senza nome shuns all sentimentality. The music is rooted in the perilous sea, filled with people desperately yearning for sanctuary. In the second movement, delicate solo lines and dense orchestral textures alternate, creating captivating sonic and dramatic tensions. The movement closes with a deeply moving passage scored for a string quartet and percussion. At the closing bars, an elegiac viola solo is heard, accompanied by cowbells.
The third movement is a compelling tableau of moods, textures and rhythms, leading to a heartfelf coda, dedicated to the memory of Péter Esterházy. Closing with a muted trumpet cadenza, Alle vittime senza nome is a powerful sonic journey.
Wonderfully performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic with the composer, the music was full of spellbinding solo passages, alongside impressive tutti sections. With Eötvös, the orchestra was admirably balanced, with excellent clarity and transparency of sound.
Following Alle vittime senza nome, Eötvös’ Violin Concerto No. 2 DoReMi (2012) was heard, with the marvellous Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno as soloist. Of the three violin concertos by Eötvös to date, DoReMi is the most playful and witty one.
As suggested by its title, DoReMi is rooted in the simplest musical material imaginable. Yet, paradoxically, this simplicity gives rise to the most inspired sequence of variations, cast in three movements. Throughout the concerto, the soloist and the orchstra are engaged in a dazzling dialogue, full of delightful surprises. Zenithing with a fabulos cadenza, DoReMi is an instant charmer.
The solo part was rivetingly performed by Moreno, with Eötvös and the orchestra as an ideal companion. From the opening page to the closing bars, one was simply swept away by the luminous performance. Followed by Moreno’s brilliant encore, Manuel de Falla’s Nana from Siete canciones populares españolas (1914), in a version for violin and harp, the first half was brought to a lovely conclusion.
After the intermission, two ravishingly colourful orchestral pieces of the 1920s were heard. In 1923, Maurice Ravel clad Claude Debussy’s 1890 piano piece Danse Tarantelle styrienne in utmost captivating orchestral guise. Resulting in an intriguing mixture of the idioms of the two Frenchmen, the Danse is a joyous piece, not too often performed.
Combined with the quasi-Sibelian hue of the Helsinki Philharmonic, Danse was embedded with fascinating sonorities. With Eötvös, the rhythms were well-articulated, leading to an uplifting performance.
The evening concluded with a stunning tour-de-force, Zoltán Kodály’s exquisite Háry János Suite (1925-27). Derived from the singspiel, the six-movement suite features orchestral story-telling par excellence. Scored for a large orchestra featuring cimbalom, alto saxophone and a delightful array of percussion, the suite is a case in point of orchestral colouring.
With Eötvös on the podium, the orchestra gave an energetic and formidably detailed performance of the Kodaly suite. The music was set well in motion with the introduction, followed by a charming set of character pieces.
The two sublime movements, Song and Intermezzo were performed with delicacy and detail, while The Defeat of Napoleon featured brilliant proto-Hollywood brass and percussion textures, predating Miklós Rózsa’s epic film scores of the 1950s.
With a rousing finale, Entrance of the Emperor and His Court, the evening conluded with marvellous orchestral joy. A happy evening of imaginative programming and inspired performance.
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Peter Eötvös, conductor
Leticia Moreno, violin
Peter Eötvös: Alle vittime senza nome (2016) for orchestra
Peter Eötvös: Violin Concerto No. 2 DoReMi (2012)
Claude Debussy: Dance Tarantelle styrienne (1890, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, 1923)
Zoltán Kodály: Háry János – suite (1925-27)
Helsinki Music Centre
Wednesday 23 October 2019, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio