For the musicians of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the audiences, both at the Helsinki Music Centre and online, the concert on Wednesday was met with special enthusiasm. Having Chief Conductor Designate Nicolas Collon back on the podium was an eagerly awaited affair, following his compelling previous appearance in May 2019.
In terms of programming, the evening could not have been more inspiring. The combination of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906) was an absolutely spot-on choice. Written a century apart, both scores demonstrate brilliant radicalism by two extraordinary composers in the brink of maturity.
By their first symphonic forays, both Beethoven and Schoenberg had already gained fame with their earlier music. In the case of Beethoven, the two first piano concertos had been already premiered, alongside a formidable array of chamber music. As for Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899) for string sextet and Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 for orchestra had had their first performances at the Vienna Musikverein.
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, a contemporary of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1906-07), seeks to reinvent the symphony both in terms of form and orchestration. Similarly with Sibelius, Schoenberg was intrigued by the idea of a symphonic synthesis, with movements flowing into the next through organic transformation. In addition, both composers shunned away from the Mahlerian proportions extended in time and space, in favor of more condensed architecture and instrumental setup.
The Chamber Symphony No. 1 is scored for a quintet of solo strings, eight winds and two horns. Written in one continuous movement of c. twenty minutes, with the traditional four-movement symphonic scheme fused into one extended arch, the score is a dazzling synthesis of intricate (and dense!) chamber textures and a genuinely symphonic architecture.
Schoenberg’s hardcore counterpoint and extended harmonic vocabulary give rise to an extraordinary musical entity. Still after 114 years, the Chamber Symphony provides a marvellous challenge, both to the performers and audiences. Yet, when properly done, the music yields to an uplifting adventure.
Three and a half years have passed since my previous encounter with the Chamber Symphony. In March 2017, Ensemble InterContemporain and Matthias Pintscher gave an unforgettable performance of the score at Philharmonie de Paris, in conjunction with the ensemble’s fortieth anniversary weekend. I can still recall the sheer virtuosity and vitality of that gorgeous performance, an equal to Pierre Boulez’s outstanding CBS recording, also with the EiC.
The bar was thus set quite high for the Wednesday evening.
Although the 2017 performance remained in a league of its own, I did enjoy the FRSO take with Collon tremendously. The ensemble of fifteen soloists performed with admirable virtuosity, carefully balanced by Collon. The musical phrases were ever well-articulated, with an excellent balance between the lyrical and the agitated elements of the score.
In those fleeting moments of tranquillity, the textures glowed in sublime beauty, contrasted by the heated crescendos, well-wrought to a stunning effect. In terms of continuity, the music unfolded in logical manner, clad in formidable counterpoint.
In addition the performance bridged well to the brilliant outing of John Adams’s Schoenberg-influenced Chamber Symphony (1992) by the FRSO and Esa-Pekka Salonen heard in September. This kind of cross-concert continuity is always welcome indeed.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major is a feast of invention with its next-level Haydn take on the medium. In a way, it is Beethoven’s teasing homage to his teacher, with its mixture of admiration and protest. In genuinely Haydnesque manner, the symphony begins with a twelve-bar adagio molto joke-introduction, implying several keys before finally landing on C major.
The movement proper, marked allegro con brio launches into motion with upbeat orchestral energy and wit. The orchestral fabric bears Beethoven’s fingerprints all over; be they those sudden, quirky accents, obstinate repetitions, or the incessant sonic flow per se.
Collon and the FRSO embraced the wonderful first movement with joyous energy and uplifting musicality, endorsing Beethoven’s sonic imagination to the fullest.
The andante cantabile con moto second movement opens à la Haydn, but soon ventures into an unmistakably Beethovenian territory. The contrasts deepen and the phrases gain weight, resulting in splendid tension within the musical fabric. This dramaturgy was well conceived by the FRSO and Collon, leading to a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Beethoven’s Menuetto blasts in with full-throttled allegro molto e vivace. Brisk, spiky and joyous, contrasted by a fabulous stuck-needle trio, the whole movement is brilliantly tongue-in-cheek. Again the orchestra and Collon were on-point in their reading, electrifying the hall with their apt earthiness and gorgeous rhythmic flow.
The Finale opens with a tutti chord, followed by the perfect anti-climax, in the guise of fragmented upscale figures on the first violins, delaying the start for six bars. Once the engine gets running, there’s no stopping for the cascade of orchestral texture, rolling its sonic waves headlong towards the closing chord.
With a rousing take on the Finale, the FRSO and Collon brought the symphony to its tour-de-froce close. Based on Jonathan Del Mar’s critical edition published by Bärenreiter, the performance featured period brass and timpani, providing extra colour and nuance to the orchestral fabric.
Following the extraordinary 2019 Beethoven concerto cycle by orchestra, with Hannu Lintu at the helm, and Stephen Hough as soloist, the FRSO demonstrated, once again, its solid approach on Beethoven with the joyful take on the Symphony No. 1.
Yet, with all the virtues of the Schoenberg and Beethoven performances, it was the encore that highlighted the whole evening. As a surprise, Collon and the orchestra indulged their audiences with Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 orchestration of the Scherzo from his Octet, Op. 20 (1825).
When Mendelssohn set forth to London to perform his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11 (1824), he found the original Menuetto third movement boring, and decided to replace it with the Scherzo from the Octet. In his own words, he merely ”added a few airy trumpets” to the original scoring, whereas he in fact rescored the whole movement.
Although Mendelssohn went on to re-establish the Menuetto third movement to the symphony, the orchestrated Scherzo lived on as a standalone piece. On Wednesday evening, it became the perfect encore.
Without question, one of the most spellbinding things I’ve ever heard at the Music Centre, the performance of the Scherzo was pure magic. The FRSO strings were clad in astoundingly delicate hue, joined by the timbral splendor of the winds, and the radiance of those airy trumpets, augmented by timpani.
With Collon, everything just clicked in this music, resulting in a truly one-of-a-kind performance. Rooted in vividness equal to Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s wondrous takes on Mendelssohn with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhausorchester, the FRSO and their Chief Conductor Designate simply crowned the evening with the Scherzo. In the hall, the joy of music was indeed tangible.
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Nicolas Collon, conductor
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906) for 15 solo instruments
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800)
Music Centre, Helsinki
Wednesday 20 October, 8 pm
© Jari Kallio