From Mahler reimagined to Xenakis choreographed, a wonderful afternoon with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki

Chiel Conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic at the Music Centre on Wednesday. © Jari Kallio

Over the past two months the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has been experimenting with new programming concepts, including multiple concert dates and times, as well as innovative playlists, combining more traditional orchestral repertoire with contemporary works and choreographed solo pieces.

From November on, the orchestra is to revisit more traditional concert schemes, albeit with some intriguing programming choices. Thus, this week’s concerts with Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki brought the experimental period to its close, at least for now. 

And what a close it was! With only fifteen players onstage, Mälkki and the orchestra set out to perform the tremendous opening Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major (1910), in a 2015 version for chamber orchestra by Michelle Castelletti.

As is well known, Mahler did not live to finish his last symphony. Upon the composer’s death on 18 May 1911, the Tenth Symphony was partially finished in full score, alongside a more or less complete, five-movement draft, mostly in four-stave short score. 

Over the decades following Mahler’s passing, several performing versions of the symphony have been created. Of these, the edition by Deryck Cooke et al. (1960-64/1976/1989) has been the single most thoroughly convincing one, remaining ever faithful to Mahler’s draft. 

However, the Cooke edition is not a completion, nor has it ever been intended as one. The aim for Cooke et al. was to make Mahler’s draft performable, without attempt to recompose the music to something what might have been, had Mahler been able to finish his score. 

The main criticism for the Cooke edition deals with the the lack of counterpoint in some passages. It is impossible to say exactly, to what extent the unprecedented transparency of Mahler’s writing in the Tenth Symphony was intentional, or was simply left unfinished. 

Therefore, different approaches can be taken in bringing Mahler’s draft to life. Over the years, the most common solution has been performing the opening Adagio as a standalone twenty-five-minute piece. Few versions of the complete, five-moment text have been able to challenge the Cooke edition in popularity among conductors and audiences. 

What makes Castelletti’s edition to stand apart, is its fundamental rethink of the instrumentation. Given that no authoritative text for full orchestra exists, Castelletti’s vision is not technically a reduction, but a complete reimagining of the symphony in chamber orchestra scoring.

There’s an extraordinary 2019 recording of the complete symphony in Castelletti’s edition by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra and John Storgårds available on BIS records, well worth listening. Combined with Wednesday’s wonderful performance of the Adagio with Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic, I would say that Castelletti’s edition is the one most likely to persist alongside the classic Cooke et al. 

Scored for solo winds, horn, trumpet, timpani, harp, harmonium, piano and string quintet, the Adagio preserves the essentials of Mahler’s original, with the keyboard instruments providing extra mass to the texture. Castelletti adds timpani, omitted from the first movement by Mahler, in order to provide extra impact to the dynamic range. 

The music opens with a substantial solo part for viola, marked andante, paving the way for the adagio proper, beginning at bar 16, scored for full ensemble. The opening passage keeps recurring throughout the movement, as the music builds up to a shattering tutti climax, followed by a coda of gripping resignation. 

Susanna Mälkki and the members of the Helsinki Philharmonic performing the Mahler Adagio on Wednesday. © Jari Kallio 

While the chamber scoring obviously lacks the crushing weight of a full orchestra, the added transparency allows the musical lines to shine out, yielding to intense intimacy. Performed with admirable musicianship and committed expression, the Helsinki Philharmonic players provided a profound Mahler experience. 

The extended symphonic architecture was beautifully laid out by Mälkki, enhanced by ever-apt balancing and pristine clarity. 

After the Mahler, Jean Sibelius’s Rakastava (The Lover, 1894/1911), a ten-minute suite for string orchestra, based on an earlier choral piece, felt like a light interlude, even though the number of players was doubled. Yet, Rakastava is not a mere piece d’occasion. 

The 1911 version for string orchestra was written in parallel with the proofreading for Symphony No. 4 in a minor, Op. 63 (1910-11), one of Sibelius’s most uncompromising masterpieces. Therefore it is no coincidence that there are fascinating echoes of the symphony found in Rakastava.

With the string orchestra version, Sibelius completely rewrote his original choral piece, thus giving rise to a practically new work. The string textures are completely idiomatic, combining lively folk-like passages to more introverted, quasi-static sections, reminiscent of the Fourth Symphony. 

Having heard a dazzling period-instrument performance of Rakastava less than two weeks ago, with the Finnish Baroque Orchestra and Tomas Djupsjöbacka at the Lahti Sibelius Festival, I must admit that I did not grasp quite the similar sonic magic in the Helsinki Philharmonic performance. Another time, another place, I might have come to a different judgment, though. 

In all fairness, it should be stressed that the Helsinki Philharmonic strings performed with wonderfully dark-hued timbres, clad in detailed phrasing and combined with formidable clarity. 

In the course of the autumn season Mälkki and the orchestra have embraced Sibelius’s less-played orchestral repertoire with delightful commitment. In this context, Rakastava was an aptly chosen piece. Hopefully there’s more to come as the season proceeds. 

Alongside the Mahler Adagio, the choreographed performance of Iannis Xenakis’s Rebonds B (1987-89) will long dwell in memory.

Scored for bongos, tumba, tom-tom, bass drum and woodblocks, the six-minute masterpiece-of-a-ritual is a riveting feast of rhythm and timbre, calling for a virtuoso soloist to navigate within its enthralling sonic fabric. 

With superimposed patterns transforming and interweaving, Rebonds B is a remarkable thing to hear, especially when performed with such focus and intensity as Xavi Castelló Aràndiga did on Wednesday. 

Tero Saarinen’s engaging, idiomatic choreography was brought to life with absorbing energy by dancer Oskari Kymäläinen, whose performance was absolutely spellbinding. 

Dancer Oskari Kymäläinen and percussionist Xavi Castelló Aràndiga. © Jari Kallio

The top-class performance of Rebonds B was also a befitting herald for the forthcoming Musica nova Helsinki festival ahead in February 2021, with a special focus on Xenakis.  

As another interesting programming coincidence, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic concluded their programme with the very same piece Nicholas Collon and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra did only last week; Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800). As a result, the Helsinki audiences got to hear two fundamentally different, yet equally inspiring performances of this astonishingly brilliant symphony.

Unlike Collon and the FRSO with their period brass and timpani, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic went with standard, modern-instrument setup. Yet, Mälkki’s approach came off more classical, with an admirable focus on form and finesse of articulation. Both readings were marvellously rooted in orchestral joie de vivre, as seen from different perspectives. 

With Mälkki, the Helsinki Philharmonic embraced Beethoven’s joyously witty score wholeheartedly, delivering an uplifting closing to the extraordinary concert. As Central Europe is heading towards a second lockdown, we Finns are indeed privileged to have concert life resuming at the highest level, as demonstrated again by this wondrous afternoon.  

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Xavi Castelló Aràndiga, percussion

Oskari Kymäläinen, dance

Tero Saarinen, choreography

Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major (1910, version for chamber orchestra by Michelle Castelletti, 2015)

Jean Sibelius: Rakastava (The Lover, 1894/1911) – Suite for string orchestra

Iannis Xenakis: Rebonds B (1987-89) for solo percussion

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800)  

Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 28 October, 12 pm 

© Jari Kallio 

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