An evening of refined music-making with Till Fellner, the FRSO and Kent Nagano

Conductor Kent Nagano, pianist Till Fellner and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Music Centre on Friday evening. © Jari Kallio 

This week marked Kent Nagano’s return to guest-conduct the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Joined with pianist Till Fellner, the orchestra and Nagano presented the Music Centre audiences with probably the most traditional concert so far this season, as far as programming is concerned. 

Following concerts with focus on contemporary music and less frequently performed repertoire, an evening of Mozart and Richard Strauss provided the orchestra with quite different challenge.

Over the course of years the FRSO has gained new depth and insight in performing the Viennese classical repertoire, as demonstrated by the recent concert performances and a complete recording of the Beethoven Piano Concerti with Chief Conductor Hannu Lintu and pianist Stephen Hough

In addition, the guest appearances by Herbert Blomstedt and Sir Roger Norrington have been cases in point with the late 18th century and early 19th century repertoire. 

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat, KV 482 (1785) is a fabulous piece for both the soloist and the orchestra. The most extensive of the Mozart concertos, both in terms of length and orchestral forces employed, the concerto is a veritable adventure into melodic invention and timbral variety. 

By December 1785, Mozart had had a productive year with no less than five new piano concertos. As he was embarking upon a new operatic journey, his first collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro (1786), he produced yet another keyboard concerto, added into the Complete Catalogue of Works by the composer on 16 December. 

Both Figaro and the Concerto in E flat can be seen, among myriad other things, as studies in extended structures. As far as the concerto is concerned, Mozart employs a wealth of musical material, studies its potential thoroughly with his astounding keyboard and orchestral parts, which include, for the very first time, a pair of clarinets. 

The outer movements are wondrously upbeat. No so much heroic in the sense of Beethoven, but simply festive in their sonic invention and myriad of colour. Awash with the most intriguing dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, they convey musical universes of endless imagination. 

At the heart of the concerto lies the C minor andante. Here, Mozart engages his soloist into extraordinary discussions with the orchestral sections. Following the extended opening for strings and piano, a riveting passage for winds and keyboard ensues. The timbral finesse bears otherworldly beauty, as the soloist and the orchestra confer with ornate phrases, gently interwoven with contrapuntal mastery. 

As longtime collaborators Nagano and Fellner were well in accord with their concept for the concerto. Maybe best described as the art of the sublime, both the soloist and the conductor set forth to unravel the score to its minutiae detail, with carefully observing those ever-so-important micro-tensions, rooted within phrases. 

With the overall structural plan firmly established the score was converted to sounding reality with admirable naturalness, both in terms of the solo part as well orchestral textures. 

Fellner’s mastery over the keyboard part was evident throughout his inspiring reading, well echoed by the formidable performance of the FRSO under Nagano. Fellner’s lightness of touch and articulate phrasing let the musical line flow rich in detail and spirit. 

The transparent string textures were enriched by the delightful dexterity and clarity of each section, yielding to marvellous ensemble performance. In a different type of acoustics, the strings would have gained just the little extra warmth needed, but the Music Centre auditorium tends to reinforce clarity with the expense of optimal string glow. 

The FRSO winds had a ball with Mozart’s extraordinary writing, reaching zenith in the slow movement, with its lengthy passages for piano and winds beautifully conveyed. 

Perfected by the key contribution from period brass and timpani, the festive character of the outer movements was joyously enriched, ever carefully balanced by Nagano. 

A refined performance with zero fuss and exaggeration, the Concerto in E flat was enthusiastically received by the full, safety-distanced in-house audience. 

Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, subtitled a study for 23 solo strings, is a thoroughly honest lament for a world laid waste in the WWII. Strauss’s initial impetus was a personal one, evoked by the destruction of opera houses and theaters in Allied air raids. Yet the roots of Metamorphosen dig deeper, into the loss of the culture itself, abused by the nazis and destroyed by war. 

Conceived as a continuous thirty-minute arch, subdivided into sections joined attacca, Metamorphosen is another example of structural mastery, with condensed basic material, derived from the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica (1802-04), developed in the most ingenious manner, from fragments to a compelling final appearance on the closing page, marked in memoriam in the score. 

With twenty three solo players, Metamorphosen is essentially chamber music, expanded to orchestral proportions. Among Strauss’s luminously autumnal late works, it stands out as a heartbreaking Requiem, clad in dark-hued string textures, only momentarily alight with the last flickering rays of twilight. 

It’s been over four years since my previous encounter with the Strauss masterpiece. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Simon Rattle, the Barbican rehearsal and performance are still vividly etched in memory, with the gorgeously heated glow of the LSO strings echoing radiantly as ever. 

Kent Nagano and the FRSO strings after Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen at the Music Centre. © Jari Kallio 

Kent Nagano’s approach to Metamorphosen with the FRSO strings could not have been more different. Rooted in clarity of the musical line and transparency of texture, Nagano set out to focus on the profoundly touching frailty of the phrases, bound together by sonic architecture stronger than any human catastrophe. 

As often with Nagano, the translucent fabric invites the listener deep into the very core of the music, with sufficient space to reflect one’s emotional responses. With the wonderful FRSO string players conveying the score with top-class musicianship, this was not an in-your-face reading, but rather an into-your-heart realization. 

With this insightful performance of Metamorphosen, compelling in its sublime intensity, the evening was brought to its thought-provoking close. In these testing times of the pandemic and the climate change, the Strauss score, with all its darkness, made indeed a resounding effect. 

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Kent Nagano, conductor

Till Fellner, piano

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 22 in E flat major, KV 482 (1785)

Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen (1944-45) – A study for 23 solo strings

Music Centre, Helsinki

Friday 16 October 8 pm

© Jari Kallio 

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