Exquisite Saariaho and Bartók double-bill with Susanna Mälkki and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Berliner Philharmoniker and Susanna Mälkki onstage at the Philharmonie after the German premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Vista on Saturday.
© Stephan Rabold

Compelling musical narratives come in different guises. For this week’s programme, Susanna Mälkki and Berliner Philharmoniker had come up with a spellbinding combination of two very different, yet equally captivating dramatic arches, masterfully conceived for orchestral forces.

The pairing of the German premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s new orchestral work Vista (2019) and a concertante performance of Béla Bartók’s only opera Bluebeard’s Castle, op. 11 (1911/1912/1917/1921) yielded to a marvellous musical entity, resoundingly endorsed by terrific contributions from Mälkki, mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi, baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle and the musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Jointly commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the two-movement, twenty-five-minute Vista is Saariaho’s first purely orchestral work in many years, coming in the heels of two operas, Innocence (2016-18) and Only the Sound Remains (2015), a song cycle, True Fire (2014) and two concertos, Maan varjot (2013) and Trans (2015).

Scored for triple winds, quadruple brass, extended percussion section, calling forth four players, and strings, Vista makes exquisite use of the full potential of its broad orchestral canvas. Interestingly, Saariaho’s trademark combination of harp, piano and celesta is absent from the musical fabric; a deliberate departure 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”, Saariaho summed up her aesthetic in our interview back in 2019, when she was devising preliminary sketches for Vista.

Titled Horizons and Targets, the two movements of Vista come off as polar opposites in many ways, be it tempi, texture or musical dramaturgy. Still there is fascinating interconnectedness between the two instrumental journeys, resulting in a multi-faceted whole.

Escorted by few solitary notes from vibraphone, Horizons opens with an extended oboe duet, the first musical shape to emerge from the mists. Joined by cor anglais and a solo viola, the musical fabric enters into coloristic transformation, carrying over to further woodwind and string lines.

From the fifth page on, brass and more percussion are entered into the fabric, giving rise to the most evocative sonorities. In the course of the first movement, the orchestra rarely comes together as a full symphonic ensemble. Rather, the musical fabric permutes from one instrumental group to another, travelling across a vast sonic space.

True to its title, the musical lines in Horizons seem to extend their trajectories into faraway vanishing points, resulting in captivating orchestral dramaturgy, clad in astounding instrumental raiments.

After a 270-bar journey in sound, Horizons lands on a fermata hue of strings, bowed tam-tam and cymbal on timpani, bridging into the second movement. As implied by its title, Targets reworks the musical material into more goal-oriented contrapuntal clusters, manifesting in tumultuous textures, motivated by pulsating percussion.

Susanna Mälkki conducting Saariaho with the Berliner Philharmoniker. © Stephan Rabold

In the course of its 172 bars, the music of Targets assumes a quasi-cinematic narrative, one of gripping intensity. A cascade of orchestral colour, skilfully woven into translucent instrumentation,Targets plunges into an astonishingly kinetic musical realm, giving rise to a powerful orchestral tableau.

Vista closes with a contemplative forty-bar coda, marked subito molto calmo, sempre espressivo. On the very last page, the music revolves back to its opening, as the oboes, bowed vibraphone and strings land on E, the same note from whence the music first came into being.

A performance of orchestral splendour and fabulous detail, Mälkki and the Berliner Philharmoniker delivered a tremendous German premiere for Vista. Clad in ravishing colour, Saarhiaho’s riveting textures were awoken in gorgeous instrumental sonorities within Mälkki’s solid vision of the musical architecture.

Intriguingly different from the equally wonderful world premiere by the Helsinki Philharmonic last week, the Berliner Philharmoniker performance was an illuminative affair, an uplifting display of the unique sonorities of the superlative orchestra.

With further premieres ahead in Oslo and Los Angeles, followed by numerous other performances in due time, Vista is on its way to inspire audiences worldwide over the years to come. As more and more reopenings take place here and there, Vista will, hopefully, be experienced by in-house audiences soon(ish) too.

Mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi, baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle and the Berliner Philharmoniker performing Bluebeard’s Castle under Mälkki.
© Stephan Rabold

Although more than a century has passed since its 1918 premiere, Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle still possesses unique dramatic vividness and musical poignancy, especially in a top-class performance as the one on Saturday evening.

Completed in 1911, with modifications carried out by the composer in 1912 and 1917, including a revised ending, Bartók’s score is one of the absolute masterpieces of the twentieth century opera.Based on a symbolist libretto by Béla Balázs, itself a retelling of Charles Perrault’s La Babre bleue, first published in 1697, Bluebeard’s Castle is scored for a large orchestra, with two offstage brass ensembles and organ, and two vocal soloists, Judith, a mezzo-soprano and Bluebeard, a baritone.

In terms of dramatis personae, alongside the two sung roles, the instrumental narrative of Bartók’s orchestra encompasses the sonic personification of the castle, itself a character of key importance in the story.

With minimal stage action indicated in the score, Bluebeard’s Castleis the ideal opera for concertante presentation. Holding true to its symbolist aesthetic, Bluebeard’s Castle is rooted in the ambiguity between the internal and the external, with the theatres of the mind and stage merging into one, dream-like realm.

The opera revolves around its famous game of seven closed doors, each concealing a secret for Judith to discover about her husband. In the undercurrents of the dramaturgy of unlocking the secrets, Bluebeard and Judith are engaged in a complex interplay of emotions, as their relationship goes through its inevitable transformation.

For Bartók, the libretto provided starting points for both expressively nuanced vocal writing as well as ingeniously evocative orchestral story-telling. As the doors open, one by one, revealing Bluebeard’s torture chamber, armoury, treasure chamber and secret garden, their imagery is awoken by illustrious music, evoking beauty, enchantment, bewilderment and downright horror, all further developed by Bartók’s vocal writing.

The sonic climax of the musical arch bursts open with the fifth door, as the full orchestra, organ and two antiphonally based offstage brass ensembles are joined in massive C major radiance, sounding out Bluebeard’s vast and beautiful kingdom. From there, the opera heads on to its emotional high-point, the opening of the two remaining doors.

The musical standstill depicting the pool of tears behind the sixth door is one of Bartók’s most amazing sonic creations. Juxtaposed with the ever-intensifying dialogue between Judith and Bluebeard, the score paves the way for the ultimate resolution, the opening of the seventh door and the discovery of Bluebeard’s former wives, with whom Judith is to be joined.

On its closing pages, the music harks back to its beginning, completing the forty-five minute arch in dark-hued mystery.

Ildikó Komlósi and Susanna Mälkki onstage with the Berliner Philharmoniker. © Stephan Rabold

Admirably sung by Komlósi and Kränzle, the vocal drama between Judith and Bluebeard was conceived with ever-sensitive teamwork, resulting in the most intense dialogue. Both finely attuned to the intricacies of Bartók’s writing, the two singers portrayed the transformations of their characters with spot-on psychological accuracy.

As peerless storytellers, Mälkki and the orchestra brought the orchestral score to life with astounding detail and sonic heat, giving rise to an intense narrative. Perfectly balanced, the vocal and instrumental layers were bound together in astonishing luminescence, with ever-beautifully shaped musical lines bound together into raiments of wondrously realised counterpoint.

A superb double-bill, the musical journeys of Saariaho and Bartók yielded to a deeply rewarding whole, marvellously served by the top-class online presentation of the Digital Concert Hall team. Available for on-demand streaming soon, these Mälkki-led performances are not to be missed.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Ildikó Komlósi, mezzo-soprano (Judith)

Johannes Martin Kränzle, baritone (Bluebeard)

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

Béla Bartók: Bluebard’s Castle, op. 11 (1911/1912/1917/1921) – Opera in one act

Philharmonie Berlin (Digital Concert Hall)

Saturday 22 May 2020, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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