Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic launch 20/21 with inspired innovation

Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic at the Music Centre stage on Tuesday. © Jari Kallio

Latest in the series of new beginnings, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra launched its autumn season with Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki at the Helsinki Music Centre on Tuesday evening, with repeats ahead on Thursday and Friday.

As often with Mälkki, the orchestra demonstrated once again the importance of innovative programming alongside top-class playing. While safety distances limit the maximum of players to fifty at the Music Centre stage, the Helsinki Philharmonic came up with a programme quintessentially their own.

Three pieces by Sibelius were paired with Richard Strauss’s early Serenade for Winds, Op. 7 (1881), Toru Takemitsu’s astonishing Voice (1971) for solo flute and Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Op. 25 (1916-17), to form an insightful whole.

The evening began with Sibelius’s Impromptu for string orchestra (1903/1904). For the six-minute string piece, two piano Impromptus from an earlier opus were recycled by Sibelius, who needed material for an orchestral concert in Turku in 1894. Cast in a straightforward ABA-form, the string orchestra version is a charming little gem.

Together with Mälkki, the Helsinki Philharmonic strings gave an absolutely beautiful performance of the Impromptu. Clad in fine detail, with a lovely contrast between the slow outer sections and the upbeat middle one. As a small detail, it should be noted that the B-A transition on a double bass pedal point was the most charming thing.

Strauss’s youthful Serenade, in turn, provided the brass section its moment to shine. The ten-minute piece by a seventeen-year-old composer displays a mastery of orchestration, with its delicate use of duple winds, a double bassoon and four horns.

While being a delightful piece of its own right, the Serenade is also a fascinating precursor to Strauss’s late wind music. Not too often heard, it was a splendid thing to include, especially regarding to the uplifting performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic winds.

As a centerpiece, Sibelius’s marvellous melodrama Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph, 1895) was heard. Scored for reciter, string orchestra, piano and horns, the melodrama is a condensed version of the tone poem (or ballad), scored for a full orchestra. In addition to reduced scoring, the melodrama is also significantly shorter, lasting less than fifteen minutes.

It is unclear which of the two versions came first, but I’m inclined to think that the melodrama was adapted from the orchestral score. Be that as it may, both versions are among the most moving music Sibelius wrote as a young man.

Skogsrået sets a text by Viktor Rydberg, a ballad of a young hero enthralled by a wood nymph. Dressed in somewhat Wagnerian orchestral guise, Sibelius’s score bears spellbinding charm. The piano part aptly substitutes the woodwind section, with the horns providing colour and pedal point. The string scoring is imaginative, featuring a haunting cello part in the middle section.

The spoken text was delivered with sublime dramaturgy by Rabbe Smedlund, well-balanced with the orchestra. The Helsinki Philharmonic performed with drama and dedication, yielding to a gripping experience. Due to the unforgiving bareness of Sibelius’s orchestration, some near misses in the horn parts could be detected on a couple of occasions, but in a spirited performance, these were quickly forgotten.

Performing The Wood Nymph. © Jari Kallio

Toru Takemitsu was one of the most interesting composers of the postwar 20th century. His style was an unique mixture of European modernism and Japanese tradition. Among his varied output, Takemitsu wrote a wonderful series of pieces for solo instruments, including the dazzling Voice for solo flute.

Written in s single day for Aurelè Nicolet, Voice employs extended playing techniques, requiring the player to use various vocalizations as well, based on a short text from Handmade Proverbs by Shuzo Takiguchi.

At Musiikkitalo, Jenny Villanen’s compelling performance was accompanied by Natasha Lommi’s choreography, admirably rooted in the music itself.

Among the COVID-19 programmes, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony seems to enjoy a deserved popularity. It is one of those pieces that never fails to put a smile on one’s face, not even on a masked one. Still, it is by no means a routine score. In fact, to make the piece shine, transparency and rhythmic agility are both key issues.

As unbelievable as it seems, I haven’t heard the Classical Symphony in concert for over twenty five years. My previous account was a smashing one by Avanti! on a summer tour, conducted by the young Esa-Pekka Salonen.

On Tuesday, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic treated their first night audience with a rousing performance. Quirky and elegant, Prokofiev’s surreal reinvention of the 18th century was sounded with mischievous joie de vivre, without compromising the nuanced care of detail.

As a closure, Sibelius’s Cassazione, Op. 6 (1904/1905) was a bit overshadowed by the ravishing Prokofiev symphony. Nevertheless, this appealing tableau for flutes, clarinets, brass, timpani and strings was a happy encounter too.

Originally written as a filler for the premiere of the first version of the Violin Concerto, Op. 47 (1903-04), Cassazione was not met with enthusiasm by critics. Sibelius subsequently revised the score in 1905, but inscribed the words ”bör omarbetas” (”to be reworked”) on the title page. However, other projects took precedence, and the score remained as it was.

While somewhat sketchy and uneven, Cassazione is not mere pièce d’occasion. Rather, it is a potential, which, completed by the listener’s imagination, comes off quite well, when performed with commitment. And that was precisely what Mälkki and the orchestra did.

Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic.
© Jari Kallio

With Cassazione, the programme was completed in full circle. Hearing Sibelius with the unmatched tradition of the Helsinki Philharmonic, coupled with intriguing repertoire, was something truly heartwarming.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Jenny Villanen, flute

Natasha Lommi, dance and choreography

Rabbe Smedlund, narrator

Jean Sibelius: Impromptu for string orchestra (1893/1894)

Richard Strauss: Serenade for Winds in E flat Major, Op. 7 (1881)

Jean Sibelius: The Wood Nymph, Op. 15 (1895) – melodrama

Toru Takemitsu: Voice (1971) for solo flute

Sergei Prokofiev: Classical Symphony in D Major, Op. 25 (1916-17)

Jean Sibelius: Cassazione, Op. 6 (1904/1905) for orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki

Tuesday 8 September, 6 pm

© Jari Kallio

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