In the midst of a dark, frosty November evening, the Helsinki Music Centre was clad in luminous sonic heat, as the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki, joined by the pianist Andreas Haefliger, gave the Finnish premiere of Dieter Ammann’s outstanding sonic panorama, The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) (2016-19).
Since its premiere at the BBC Proms by Haefliger and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, the concerto was performed in Boston last month, with Mälkki at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In conjunction with this week’s Helsinki performance, The Piano Concerto gets its premiere recording, to be released on the Swedish label BIS.
With roots in both classical and jazz traditions, Ammann, 57, is a unique voice in contemporary music. With his thorough craftmanship, Amman takes great care in developing his ideas, which are then inscribed into score sheets with a pencil, without any kind of notation software.
For Ammann, the twenty-five minute Piano Concerto marks a new-found compositional freedom, reflected in the wealth of marvellously realized musical ideas inherent in the score. According to the composer, the ”fire” of the music is to be perceived as a beacon to fight climate change.
Scored for a large orchestra of triple winds and brass, with four horns, large string section and a wide array of percussion, The Piano Concerto celebrates dense, yet transparent textures, riveting rhythms and astounding instrumental colour.
Subtitled Gran Toccata, the concerto is a celebration of virtuosity and inextinguishable sonic energy. Performed attacca, the concerto is based on a sequence of contrasting sections. With organic transformations, the music ventures into vastly different sonic realms, each studied with seemingly endless imagination and craft.
Appropriately for a toccata, the music opens with a dazzling molto ritmico passage. From the opening bars on, the music builds up to a whirlwind for piano and orchestra, clad in wondrous textures of spellbinding instrumentation.
Following a cadenza, the rhythmic drive is transformed into sublime swing, encompassing sonorities akin to the realms of impressionism and jazz. Coloured by microtonal harmonies and some extended playing techniques, the music is ever refreshingly original.
One of the most deeply moving moments in The Piano Concerto is a brief Corale malinconico, a fleeting passage of aching beauty and immediate communicativeness.
Coming full circle, the rhythmic element starts to regain prominence, launching the soloist and the orchestra into a splendid labyrinth of sound. On the closing pages, the music cools down into a series of closing chords for the piano, accompanied by a slow-motion vibrato strings.
Performed with invigorating virtuosity by Haefliger, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic, The Piano Concerto was a mesmerizing experience. One could but marvel the clarity of the performance, given the unparalleled complexity of the impeccable scoring.
The solo part, with its myriad of challenges, was dazzlingly performed by Haefliger. The orchestra, delicately woven around the solo line, mastered the textures and rhythms with astonishing musicality under Mälkki. A gratifying experience in every way, the concerto was enthusiastically received by both the Helsinki Music Centre audience and the composer alike.
In accordance with the Italian theme of the Helsinki Philharmonic 19/20 season, the evening opened with a formidable postwar classic by Giacinto Scelsi.
Quattro Pezzi ciascuno su una nota sola (1959) is a fascinating study of radically stripped down musical material. Each of the movements are, as the title suggests, based on just one note. Yet, with ever-transforming orchestration, colour and texture, each piece is turned into a compelling meditation.
Bearing family resemblance with György Ligeti’s similar experiments with Musica ricercata (1951-53), the suggestive reductionism of Scelsi’s pieces provides a unique listening experience.
With its quasi-Webern attention to detail, Quattro Pezzi is a challenging thing to perform. With everything laid bare, the music calls for extreme concentration and careful attention to detail.
With Mälkki, the Helsinki Philharmonic winds and brass, alongside a small string ensemble and percussion, performed Quattro Pezzi with admirable dedication and detail. Nuanced articulation and rhythmic precision were the key virtues here, resulting in refreshingly original concert opening.
From its first performances on, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Op 32 (1914-16) has been one of the best-loved pieces of the 20th century orchestral repertoire. Cast in seven movements, each inspired by the astrological aspects linked to the planets of our solar system, save the Earth.
Scored for a large symphony orchestra, including quadruple winds, six horns, two timpanists, four percussionists, two harps, celesta and organ, the forty-five-minute suite is clad in splendid orchestral colour. Combined with intriguing harmonies and enchanting melodic material, The Planets is a joyous orchestral journey beyond the horizon.
Propulsive five-beat rhythm launches the first movement, Mars, the bringer of war. Ominous brass lines appear, and with mounting tension, the music bursts into first tutti climax. The relentless war-like rhythm ceases momentarily in the middle section, followed by another thunderous passage and a shattering coda.
In contrast, Venus, the bringer of peace is a sublime pastoral, rooted in the sonic landscape of the English folk song. With gorgeous solo passages for horn, violin and cello, the music bears an aura of beauty without false sentimentality.
With splendid contrasts, the first two movements were given uplifting performances by the orchestra and Mälkki. The relentless menace of Mars was rooted in well-articulated rhythm and exemplary clarity, with luscious, dark sonorities. On a personal note, I might have preferred a slightly faster basic tempo, though that would probably compromised some of the wonderful clarity.
As for Venus, the performance was pure bliss. Be it those riveting solo parts or gorgeous ensemble playing, the Helsinki Philharmonic captured the very essence of Holst in a memorable performance.
True to its title, Mercury, the winged messenger is a feast of swift sonic flow, with delightful agility and colour, including a silvery celesta. With Mälkki, the orchestra demonstrated extraordinary dexterity in transforming Holstian textures into sonic reality.
With ravishing festivity, Jupiter, the bringer of jollity is a feast of utmost orchestral joy. Opening with an upbeat allegro giocoso, the music is set in ravishing motion. Jubilant andante maestoso section resumes, with the orchestra engaged in slow, cosmic dance.
Be it true or legend, it has been told that during the rehearsals for the private premiere of The Planets at Royal Albert Hall, the cleaning ladies cast away their brooms and set up an impromptu dance-party in the corridors while the orchestra, conducted by the young Adrian Boult, played the andante maestoso.
Jupiter closes with an immense burst of joyous tutti energy, brilliantly orchestrated by Holst. Jubilantly performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic, their account of Jupiter was indeed the bringer of jollity.
For Holst himself, Saturn, the bringer of old age, was a personal favourite. Solemnly enigmatic, the music proceeds through fascinating sonorities in the form of a slow procession. Here, Holst’s economy of means is striking. The music is built upon a simple ostinato pattern and a chorale-like passage, both traveling from one instrumental group to another. This compelling meditation is, in many ways, the gravitational centre of The Planets.
Well paced by Mälkki, the music bore an aura of timelessness, without any dragging. With Holst’s unique orchestration shining in perfect balance, Saturn was a discovery.
Uranus, the magician, a not-too-distant relative of Paul Dukas’ L’apprenti sorcier (1897), is a trickster par excellence. The opening brass fanfare is followed by grunting bassoons, leading to a whirlwind of a dance of full orchestra. In the course of Uranus, splendid solo lines emerge, including passages scored for xylophone and timpani, respectively.
Following a brief interlude of tranquillity, the music closes with an extraordinary coda. The orchestra and Mälkki ventured through Uranus with apt flamboyance, resulting in one of the highlights of the evening.
The closing movement, Neptune, the mystic, looks to the mysteries of the great unknown. The transparent orchestral textures float in timeless eternity, paving the way for wordless offstage chorus. With these otherworldly voices the music reaches the boundaries of the known universe. With a closing static closing bar, repeated until the music has faded into silence, The Planets is brought to its spellbinding ending.
Joined by the offstage talents of the Helsinki Chamber Choir, Neptune was performed with finesse and mystery. A focused closing to a focused evening at the Helsinki Music Centre.
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Andreas Haefliger, piano
Helsinki Chamber Choir
Elisa Huovinen, chorus master
Giacinto Scelsi: Quattro Pezzi ciascuno su una nota sola (1959)
Dieter Ammann: The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) (2016-19)
Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-16) – suite for orchestra
Music Centre, Helsinki
Wednesday 6 November 2019, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio