Composing his way out of the roaring success of Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13), Igor Stravinsky went on to pursue several hitherto untrodden paths. While the Great War was brewing, the composer embarked upon writing Les Noces (1914-17/1923), originally intended as a companion piece to Sacre, to be scored for a massive orchestral and choral forces. However, during his wartime exile in Switzerland, Stravinsky sought to other projects, as the prospects for mounting a grand stagework had turned dim.
Out of the troubled times, Renard (1915-16) appeared. Subtitled Histoire burlesue chantée et jouée, the score is one of Stravinsky’s most peculiar masterpieces, deeply rooted in Russian folklore. Scored for two tenor and two bass soloists alongside an instrumental ensemble of fifteen-or-so musicians, including a tasty cimbalom part, Renard fuses elements of opera and ballet together into a flamboyant seventeen-minute farmyard scene of gripping irony.
The singers and instrumentalists account the tale of Reynard the Fox, who succeeds in deceiving the Cock, the Cat and the Goat twice, before meeting his demise. Not identified with specific characters, the four vocal parts are delightfully polystylistic, giving rise to an intriguingly evocative narrative. Stravinsky’s compositional technique is based on short melodic kernels, repeated in various permutations, within a whirling fabric of ever-changing meters, clad in riveting colours.
Opening their concert on Friday evening with upbeat whirl, the members of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Nicholas Collon presented Renard in Frederic Wake-Walker’s semi-staged production, revised by Siljamari Heikinheimo. As suggested by the opening and closing march sections, the orchestra entered and exited the stage in hilarious procession, equipped with funny headpieces and led by the conductor. Boxed in a decorated booth, Tuomas Katajala, Simo Mäkinen, Jussi Vänttinen and Sami Luttinen jumped up and down to deliver their vocal parts, resulting in simple, yet successfull comedy.
A genuine fairy-tale presentation, with top class singing and playing, Renard was given a splendid outing. A piece of chamber theatre to the bone, the full potential of the production would perhaps have been best realized in a bit more intimate venue. In any case, hearing the piece again, four years after my previous encounter with it in a splendid London performance by Oliver Knussen and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, was pure pleasure.
Keeping the evening’s Stravinsky feast going, the fabulous American violinist Leila Josefowicz joined to the orchestra and Collon onstage for a rousing performance of the Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra (1931). In the course of the twenty-minute concerto, Stravinsky takes Johann Sebastian Bach on an eventful road trip to the modern times, yielding to one of the most original entries to the repertoire.
Each of the movements, Toccata, Aria I, Aria II and Capriccio, opens with what Stravinsky called his passport chord, a signature-like, quasi-tactile sonic identifier, opening gateways to four different sonic realms. A game between Baroque idioms and twentieth century sensibilities, the concerto teams up the soloist and the orchestra on a shared discovery in time and style.
At the Helsinki Music Centre, Josefowicz, the FRSO and Collon shared their joyride with an enthusiastic audience, coming up with a wonderful sonic realization of Stravinsky’s instrumental imagination. The virtuosic outer movements were given a powerhouse workout, with Josefowicz delivering the solo part in aptly berserk manner, while paying admirable attention to the subtle, tongue-in-cheek commentary from the composer.
Under Collon, Stravinsky’s wind-and-brass-heavy orchestral writing was ever beautifully balanced with the solo violin lines, resulting in marvellous clarity, without compromising the rhythmic edge and acuteness of the musical fabric. Well-tuned to Josefowicz’s splendid agility, the Toccata and Capriccio glowed with spirited musical energy, woven into witty dialogue between the solo violin and orchestral instruments.
Stravinsky’s pairing of Aria I and II as inner movements provides the soloist with two different meditations; one quirky and pointillist, the other elegiac and introspective. In both movements, Josefowicz and the FRSO musicians embraced the chamber-like textures with a compelling, shared narrative. With many musical moments to long cherish in memory, the concerto was the emotional apex of the evening.
As Stravinsky famously abstained from writing a cadenza for his soloist, Josefowicz treated the audience with a befitting Bach encore instead. A composer not often associated with her, Josefowicz’s Bachian postscript brought the first half luminously to its reflective close.
After the intermission, the full FRSO line-up was summoned onstage for the evening’s heavyweight orchestral utterance, Sir William Walton’s lush instrumental essay, Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major (1932-35).
The genesis of the symphony was a complicated one. The broad-gestured first movement, Walton’s notable nod to Sibelius, was begun in 1932 and completed the following year, alongside the obsessive Scherzo, marked Presto con malizia in the score. In 1933, Walton composed his gorgeously passionate slow movement, Andante con malinconia. However, it took the composer two more years to find his way into the Finale, which he eventually completed in 1935, ending up with a full-scale symphonic tour-de-force, with some over-the-top passages included.
Scored for a large orchestra of duple winds, four horns, triple trumpets and trombones, tuba, two timpanists and an array of percussion instruments for the finale, the forty-five-minute symphony is a forceful affair. Unlike in the UK, the symphony is not often played in Finland. Thus, its appearance in Friday’s concert programme was a joyful surprise indeed.
With the FRSO musicians, the first movement came off even more Sibelian than usual. Well shaped by Collon, the orchestral textures were laid out with transparency and discipline, giving rise to clear-cut symphonic logic, somewhat at the expense of the red heat inherent in most performances with the UK orchestras. The same approach applied to the scherzo as well, whereas the slow movement was delivered with heightened emotional impact, yielding to the high-point of the performance.
Walton’s Finale may be somewhat problematic in its conception, but in a solid performance, one does not really pay attention to its possible shortcomings, as was the case on Friday. Unveiled with incessant sonic energy, the fourth movement mounted to an impressive orchestral drama, bringing the symphony to its cathartic close. A guilty pleasure, perhaps, Walton’s closing movement nevertheless put a lasting smile on the audiences faces, something much missed during the pandemic silence.
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Nicholas Collon, conductor
Leila Josefowicz, violin
Tuomas Katajala, tenor
Simo Mäkinen, tenor
Jussi Vänttinen, bass
Sami Luttinen, bass
Frederic Wake-Walker, director and visual design
Siljamari Heikinheimo, revised production
Igor Stravinsky: Renard (1916) – Histoire burlesque chantée et jouée
Igor Stravinsky: Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra (1931)
Sir William Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor (1932-35)
Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
Friday 17 September 2021, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio