Substantial Nordic premiere for Ryan Wigglesworth’s Piano Concerto with Dalia Stasevska conducting Lahti Symphony and the composer as soloist

Ryan Wigglesworth, Dalia Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony premiering Wigglesworth’s Piano Concerto (2019) at the Sibelius Hall. © Jari Kallio

Although it did take some reshuffling, with short notice, but Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Sibelius Hall on Thursday finally happened. Keeping with the original programming, the evening’s centerpiece was the Nordic premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth’s wondrous Piano Concerto (2019).

Had the evening transpired as planned, the solo part would have been performed by Marc-Andre Hamelin, who premiered the concerto at the BBC Proms on 28 August 2019, with the composer conducting the Britten Sinfonia. However, due to travel restrictions, Hamelin was unable join the Lahti Symphony, and the composer stepped in, switching from podium to keyboard.

For the performance of the concerto, Dalia Stasevska, the Chief Conductor Designate of the Lahti Symphony assumed the podium duties, and thus all was set for the premiere. As originally planned, Wigglesworth himself took the podium for the rest of the programme, conducting Felix Mendelssohn’s fabulous overture Die schöne Melusine (1834/1836) and Johannes Brahms’s Third Symphony (1883).

In addition, with regional lockdowns assumed in Finland over the past week or so, Thursday’s concert was racing against time as well. While the orchestra’s concerts in December were eventually cancelled, this week’s performance got green light. And gladly so!

Wigglesworth’s riveting Piano Concerto is in league with the three other masterstrokes in the medium premiered in 2019, namely Matthias Pintscher’s NUR (2018), John Adams’s Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018), Thomas Adès’s Piano Concerto (2018) and Dieter Ammann’s The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) (2016-19). Each of the four new works approach the idea of a concerto in the most different ways imaginable, to an immense delight.

Cast in four movements and lasting c. twenty two minutes, the Wigglesworth concerto is rooted in the classical idiom, with nods to the Baroque and twentieth century realms as well. Yet the concerto is by no means a postmodernist collage, but a quintessentially contemporary, historically conscious score.

Scored for a classical orchestra, with wind doublings (piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), harp and percussion added, the orchestral setup is an apt combination of colour and transparency, enabling sonic realms of seemingly endless possibilities.

The first movement, Arioso, opens with a ten-bar introduction for airy woodwind, paving the way for the soloist’s first entry. A lively dialogue between the piano and the orchestra ensues, resulting in a vivid sonic tableau.

The centerpiece of the Concerto is the extensive second movement Scherzo, marked molto ritmico. Launched with brief, accentuated passages from the low strings and winds, the movement builds up to a dazzling scenery of dark-hued dance. Contrasted by a Trio, the movement follows a more or less classic scheme.

In the course of the Scherzo, the spirits of Mahler and Bartók hover in the background, while Wigglesworth weaves together the most thrilling textures, giving rise to a fascinating interplay between the solo line and the orchestral fabric.

The Notturno third movement is surely one of the most impressive night-musics since Bartók, with its dream-like, elusive textures of the keyboard, harp and strings. Conceived as theme and variations, the movement casts a gripping spell over the listener.

Rounding off the Concerto, a brilliant Gigue is heard. In the manner of the first movement, the finale is set in motion by woodwind, interlocked into fugal textures. The soloist enters with a lyrical counter-subject, thus establishing the dramaturgy of the movement.

Following an orchestral climax, the solo piano plunges into a marvellous cadenza, leading to a brief, nine-bar coda. Interestingly, the concerto does not seem to simply end, but rather, the music dissolves into the very air in an astounding manner.

Ryan Wigglesworth and the members of the Lahti Symphony warming up at the Sibelius Hall. © Jari Kallio

Performed with ravishing energy, top-class precision and utmost sensitivity, the Concerto was brought to life with admirable teamwork between the composer-soloist, Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony. The music seemed to pour forward in the most natural manner, with the individual characteristics of each movement conveyed with superlative music-making.

Wigglesworth’s Piano Concerto is a substantial addition to the contemporary catalogue. Rooted in tradition, yet ever gazing towards unforeseen vistas, the intricate score yields to a spellbinding sonic entity.

Dubbed as ”the perfect romantic tone poem” by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Die schöne Melusina is an astounding gem. Way too rarely performed, the twelve-minute orchestral fairytale is one of the most vivid scores in the Mendelssohn oeuvre.

Based on a legend on the water-nymph Melusine and Count Raymond, the overture opens with rippling ebb and flow of woodwinds, pre-echoing Richard Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold (1851-54). The opening figure keeps recurring throughout the overture, as a key dramatic subject.

As the music unfolds, new material, both lyrical and vehement, is interwoven to the orchestral fabric, resulting in splendid architecture and apt dramaturgy. On the closing pages, the music lands on serene longing, before fading into the mists.

Rooted in the most sensuous thematic material and clad in refined orchestral guise, Die schöne Melusine is an absolutely spellbinding score.

With Wigglesworth on the podium, the Lahti Symphony gave a luminous performance, abundant with sounding magic and fine detail. The musical dramaturgy was conveyed with vigour, while maintaining exemplary clarity and ever well-adjusted balance. The orchestral fabric shone with colour, making the beautifully phrased musical lines glow.

Following the intermission, Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883)

was heard. Among my many encounters with this staple of the repertoire, two recent(ish) Berlin performances, with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2014 as well as Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in 2019, have been firmly etched in memory.

At the Sibelius Hall, Wigglesworth and the Lahti Symphony set forth to perform the score with the smallest string section I’ve heard in a Brahms symphony: eight first violins, seven second violins, six violas, five celli and four double basses. Basically a setup of Brahms’s day, the smaller string section clad the score into raiments vastly different from the two aforementioned Berlin performances.

Well-balanced by Wigglesworth, the translucent textures highlighted contrapuntal detail in an intriguing way, with the whole symphony coming off afresh, the sublime andante second movement in particular. Rarely have I heard such an inspiring combination of solid symphonic architecture and evocative melodic flow in this wonderful movement. In similar vein, the ensuing poco allegretto was devoid of sonic mass, with its gripping melancholy gently afloat in slowly rocking dance patterns.

In the outer movements, however, one could sense slight mismatch between the reduced strings and the full-blown winds and brass here and there. Had there been period brass at hand, the setup might have been ideal. Nevertheless, both movements were performed with such commitment and understanding of the Brahmsian idiom, that such pondering was rendered quite secondary.

Given that I learned my Brahms with Herbert von Karajan, I admit to some oversensitivity with sonic purity. Therefore, my ear did pick a couple of oddly formed chords in the outer movements. Yet, in all fairness, these were more than compensated with many a stunning passages by the marvellous musicians of the Lahti Symphony.

Ryan Wigglesworth and the Lahti Symphony performing Brahms Third Symphony on Thursday. © Jari Kallio

Most importantly, this was a performance of unusual excitement, commanding the listener’s undivided attention. In addition, Wigglesworth’s grasp of the Brahmsian architecture was impeccable, resulting in an utmost imaginative journey through the Third Symphony.

All things considered one could hardly have wished for a more uplifting mid-season finale. With these musical memories, the looming lockdown feels way more endurable.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Ryan Wigglesworth, conductor and piano

Dalia Stasevska, conductor

Felix Mendelssohn: Die schöne Melusine, Op. 32 (1834/1836) – Overture for orchestra

Ryan Wigglesworth: Piano Concerto (2019)

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883)

Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland

Thursday 26 November, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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