Gazing into unforeseen horizons – Vivid world premiere of Saariaho’s Vista by Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic

Susanna Mälkki and Kaija Saariaho. © Jean-Louis Fernandez / Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

On so many levels, the Wednesday evening’s online concert by the Helsinki Philharmonic, Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki and Artist-in-Residence Kirill Gerstein will be entered in the orchestras chronicles as one of the key events of the pandemic era.

The main event of the evening was the belated world premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Vista (2019) for orchestra. Dedicated to Mälkki, the twenty-five minute work was originally to receive its first performance 20 March 2020, but that evening was among the first of many lost to the pandemic over the past fourteen months.

Jointly commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Olso Philharmonic, Vista marks Saariaho’s first orchestral work since Circle Map (2012). Coming in the heels of her latest opera Innocence (2016-18), the composer reassumed writing for orchestra with special enthusiasm.

”With all those years with opera, I am so happy writing for the orchestra without the constant need to be so cautious with the dynamics. It think this new piece will open up some new paths for me”, Saariaho mused when I interviewed her back in March 2019.

As implied by its title, there are indeed new paths taken by Saariaho with her spellbinding score. Cast in two movements, Vista is scored for a large orchestra of triple winds and quadruple brass, with an extended percussion section and full strings. Unusually for Saariaho, the combination of harp, piano and celesta is absent from the fabric; a deliberate choice from the composer.

”I am always looking for new challenges, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Even though I might revisit some types of forms, of a certain way of developing my material, there must always be a sound cause for it. One does not get very far with mere cut and paste. As I have already written quite a lot of music, it takes an effort of its own to find out those very things that could be fresh and new and challenging for me.”

The first movement, Horizons opens with a haunting oboe duet. After ten bars, the other woodwind instruments join, one by one, accompanied by hazy string counterpoint. With the entries of brass and percussion, the full orchestra is engaged in the ever-changing musical fabric.

In the course of the extended arch of Horizons, Saariaho’s orchestra rarely comes together as one symphonic ensemble. Rather, the music is built upon intriguingly varied instrumental combinations, giving rise to a sequence of astounding textures, awaken in sonic raiments of extraordinary vividness and beauty.

True to its title, the translucent lines generate musical trajectories extending beyond their sounding horizons, resulting in enthralling musical tensions and expectations, often resolved in the most imaginative dialogue between the orchestral groups and solo instruments. As if new shores emerging on the horizon, ever-evolving musical vistas come into being, as if shapes emerging from the mists.

As Horizons evaporates into silence, Targets follows without a pause. In contrast to the layered hue of the opening movement, the shorter second movement bursts into full orchestral vehemence on its very opening bars. Once the musical material is launched into its orbit, the musical dramaturgy builds up into turbulent textures, with the orchestral sections overlapping, merging and crashing unto each other.

As the movement proceeds, the textures are thinned down as the rapid instrumental passages permute towards long-held lines; tensions manifested in stasis. Out of the slowly moving musical plates, a scintillating coda emerges. With instrumental lines merging into colours, Vista lands on a threshold of the unforeseen, paying its farewell with oboe, cor anglais, horn and strings hovering towards silence, marked by the closing note from the bowed vibraphone.

A terrific first performance from Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic, the score of Vista was brought to sounding reality with compelling imagination and craft. Saariaho’s musical architecture was communicated with vividness by Mälkki, evoking tremendous sonic response from the orchestra. Awash with astounding solo contributions form the Helsinki Philharmonic musicians, Vista was conceived in engaging fusion of orchestral performance and chamber music at the Music Centre.

Susanna Mälkki conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic at their Music Centre home. © Maarit Kytöharju

From Helsinki Vista will travel to Berlin next week, with Mälkki conducting the German (online) premiere with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Saturday 22 May. To be followed by the Los Angeles and Oslo premieres in due time, Vista will undoubtably become a sought-after score for orchestras and conductors over the next couple of years.

Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1841-45) holds a very special place among the 19th century forays into the genre. In contrast to the game-changing cycle by Beethoven or the two substantial contributions from Brahms, the Schumann concerto embarks upon a more intimate journey. While Schumann’s only full-scale piano concerto may not appear as a virtuoso tour-de-force at first sight, its technical challenges become obvious, once one examines the score more closely.

The concerto began its life as an one-movement Phantasie, written in four days in May 1841. After several unsuccessful attempts to get his score published, the composer finally took heed from Clara Schumann’s request and expanded the score into a full-scale concerto, completed and premiered in December 1845.

Scored for solo piano and an orchestra of duple winds, horns and trumpets, with timpani and strings, the thirty-minute concerto adopts the usual fast-slow-fast three-movement scheme, with its gravitational centres landing on the outer movements. The main musical weight is stressed on the opening allegro affettuoso, followed by a sublime andante grazioso interlude, itself bridging into the allegro vivace finale.

The first movement opens with two grand gestures; an orchestral attack followed by a descending chordal sequence from the keyboard, paving the way for the marvellously contemplative main theme. The movement grows into a gripping innate journey, clad in the most enthralling musical shape and dramaturgy, highlighted by the gorgeous solo cadenza.

In the andante grazioso, the instrumental textures are transformed into captivating passages of chamber music, as the soloist and the orchestra are interlocked in dialogue based on the most sublime sonorities. Primed by a fascinating musical transition, the A major finale ensues attacca, with its invigorating musical narrative.

In the course of Schumann’s splendid closing movement, the full expressive potential of the piano and the orchestra is channeled into upbeat lyricism and sonic magic, resulting in truly one-of-kind musical adventure.

An astonishing performance by Gerstein, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic, hearing the Schumann was like witnessing another world premiere. Among the many memorable performances of the concerto I’ve come across with over the years, I cannot recall an equally fresh take on the music. The combination of spirited invention, seamless teamwork and committed attention to detail yielded to music-making of special magnificence.

Following the magnificent Schumann concerto, Gerstein indulged the online audiences with the most fascinating series of encoures, recorded in separate sessions over the previous weekend.

Kirill Gerstein photographed by © Marco Borggreve

Like Schumann, Claude Debussy was a composer with an all-encompassing understanding over the idiosyncrasies of the piano, manifested throughout his keyboard oeuvre, from the two volumes of Préludes (1909-10 and 1912-13) all the way to the spellbinding piano/vocal score of Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902).

Alongside his pianistic masterpieces, Debussy composed an absolutely intriguing collection of piano miniatures during the long years of the Great War. Written for separate occasions, these little pieces make, in fact, a substansial addition to the composer’s catalogue, as Gerstein’s insightful performances resoundingly demonstrated.

The selection opened with a luminously meditative Pièce pour Le Vêtement du Blessé (1915), a brief musical tribute to the charity for the wounded. The ensuing Berceuse héroïque (1914) is a more extended affair, a dark-hued salute for Albert I of Belgium and his troops, with its striking combination of deep-register rumour and airy right-hand gestures contrasted by an animated, albeit brief middle section.

Perhaps the most striking among these miniatures is Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917), a Baudelaire-inspired tableau dedicated to Debussy’s carbon provider during the cold months of winter. With evocativeness worthy of the Préludes, the music is almost cinematic in its captivating presence, wondrously clad in sound by Gerstein’s fine performance.

A tribute to the women in war, Élégie (1915) is another pristine meditation, rooted in captivating harmonies with somewhat blues(y) appeal.

In terms of musical substance, Étude retrouvée (1915) is, without question, the most significant among these wartime compositions. While Debussy’s autograph, rediscovered in 1977, shares its title with his eleventh Étude, Pour les arpèges composées (1915), the two pieces are musically unrelated. An extraordinary study on the expressive possibilities of the arpeggio, Étude retrouvée is adorned with an abundance of pianistic invention, wholeheartedly cherished by Gerstein’s invigorating take.

A veritable discovery, Gerstein’s wonderful Debussy sequence served also as a befitting bridge between the realms of Schumann and Saariaho, thus contributing to the overall design of the exceptional evening.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Robert Schumann: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 54 (1841-45)

Claude Debussy: Pièce pour Le Vêtement du Blessé (1915) for piano

Claude Debussy: Berceuse héroïque (1914) for piano

Claude Debussy: Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) for piano

Claude Debussy: Élégie (1915) for piano

Claude Debussy: Étude retrouvée (1915) for piano

Kaija Saariaho: Vista (2019) for orchestra, world premiere

Music Centre, Helsinki (livestream)

Wednesday 12 May 2021, 7 pm (EET)

© Jari Kallio

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