Perfect closing for the FRSO Thomas Adès festival with Pekka Kuusisto and the composer

Violinist Pekka Kuusisto and the FRSO, conducted by Thomas Adès. © Jari Kallio

Closing the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s two-week Thomas Adès festival, Friday evening’s concert brought together four very different musical pieces, constituting a marvellously insightful continuum. Conducted by the composer, the programme included the world premiere performance of his Märchentänze (2020/2021) with Pekka Kuusisto as soloist, alongside Adès’s 1997 classic Asyla for large orchestra, Jean Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (1918-23) and another concertino for violin and orchestra, Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures (2014), followed by late-night chamber music session by Adès and Kuusisto.

Although stylistically varied, all the pieces heard in the course of the uplifting evening were rooted in vivid musical imagery, with allusions to various forms of dance embedded in their sonic narratives.

Written during a five-year period from 1918 to 1923, with its earliest sketches jotted down in 1914-15, Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 is one of the most enigmatic works in the composer’s oeuvre. Clad in mist-hued harmonies and sublime orchestral colour, the modal symphony bears pastoral evocation and fairy-tale enchantment, entangled with bittersweet undercurrents. In the manner of J. R. R. Tolkien, perhaps, Sibelius conjures up a fantasy realm, mirroring the beauty and the darkness of the world around us, as well as the ones within.

Cast in four movements, the twenty-five-minute symphony is scored for an orchestra of duple winds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings, with harp and bass clarinet added to the line-up. Throughout the symphony, the musical material is distilled into fine-tuned melodic lines, woven together with oscillating orchestral accompaniment within sublime contrapuntal fabric. Although laid out in taciturn gestures by Sibelius, each of the four movements nevertheless evokes multi-layered sonic imagery.

The symphony’s opening is reminiscent of boreal dawn, with its flickering string fabric suggesting the gradual evaporation of the morning mists, followed by the first rays of sunlight, heralded by winds, horns and a timpani roll. Out of the captivating opening, a symphonic movement of buzzing vividness ensues. Following a translucent development section, the movement reaches a zenithing tutti burst, followed by brief, laconic coda.

The ensuing allegretto moderato is one of Sibelius’s most original slow movements. It’s elusive textures bear resemblance with the aphoristic first version of the Fifth Symphony (1914-15). The static outer sections are contrasted by sweeping orchestral writing midway into the movement. In the steadfast scherzo, an image of a solitary figure riding through a wide open landscape arises, yielding to one of the most dramatic symphonic movements ever penned by Sibelius.

In the white-heat finale, storm clouds darken the sky, calling forth some splendid orchestral vehemence of gripping intensity. In the coda, the howling north winds are gradually soothed, and the symphony heads towards a tranquil evening, shrouded in ever-lengthening shadows, before dissolving into silence.

A powerfully moving performance from the FRSO and Adès, the Sixth Symphony was given a truly wonderful outing; one rooted in clear-cut symphonic vision. Sibelius’s orchestral writing unraveled with invigorating musical logic, resulting in a marvellous sonic narrative, clad in splendidly nuanced orchestral fabric abundant with well-shaped phrases and articulate harmonies.

Framing the intermission, two concertinos with wondrous instrumental story-telling were heard in dazzling performances. Commissioned by the FRSO, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and L’Auditori Barcelona, Adès’s four-movement, fifteen-minute Märchentänze is conceived as a Schumannesque narrative for violin and orchestra. In the manner of Lieux Rétrouves (2009/2016), heard at the festival opening concert, Märchentänze also exists in two versions. Premiered by Adès and Kuusisto in Paris a couple of weeks ago, the first version was written in 2020 as a duet for violin and piano, followed by the orchestral version completed this year.

Scored for solo violin and an ensemble of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, two percussionists, harp and strings, augmented with piccolo, cor anglais and cotraforte, the orchestral score reworks the piano writing into spellbinding spectrum of instrumental colour. While the ensemble writing is mostly akin to the piano part, the birdsong third movement, originally written as a solo sequence for the violinist, is re-imagined as a bird flock by the composer in the orchestral version, with the strings and winds joining the soloist.

Conceived as a dance suite, each of the four movements draws on English folk sources, somewhat in the manner of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The outer movements are lively and upbeat, with their toe-tapping rhythms and rousing melodies thrown wondrously more and more out of kilter upon each iteration of the musical cycle. Under their easy-going, witty surfaces, rhythmic mazes of riveting intricacy are fashioned by the composer.

The two inner movements adopt more contemplative tone. The second movement comes off as an elegiac round, with its tranquil opening growing more and more poignant as the musical sequence proceeds, up until its biting pizzicato closing. The brief third movement, A Skylark for Jane, comes off as almost as a cinematographic scene, set to music in alluringly airy, weightless manner.

Astounding premiere performance from Kuusisto and the FRSO under Adès, the four movements of Märchentänze were clad in the most charming sonic raiments at the Helsinki Music Centre. Musical story-telling at its finest, the fifteen-minute score gave rise to a cascade of imagery, yielding to a wonderful musical journey into an imaginary realm, full of fantasy, enchantment and wit.

Pekka Kuusisto, Thomas Adès and the FRSO performing Märchentänze. © Jari Kallio

Similar virtues were found in the performance of Four Iberian Miniatures by Francisco Coll, a composition student of Ades’s. Premiered by Kuusisto, the Britten Sinfonia and Adès at Saffron Hall in the fall of 2014, the four-movement concertino reworks popular dance idioms into inspired, and often surreal, sonic tableaux of striking invention.

The joyfully Chaplinesque first movement is aptly flamboyant and dexterous, whereas the second movement grows into an enthralling, tango-inspired nocturnal scenery. Opening with an improvisatory piano part, the third movement develops into slow-motion sequence for violin and orchestra, which then gives way to impassioned yearnings and angular rhythms. The closing movements picks up speed and dynamics, yielding to Strvainskyan accentuation and terrific array of orchestral colour.

Perfect pairing of two small-scale concertos, both enthusiastically received by the Music Centre audience, the ravishing performances were followed by a lovely encore, Nana from Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (1914), with Kuusisto joined by the FRSO pianist Jouko Laivuori.

Concluding the concert proper, the orchestra and Adès gave a tremendous performance of Asyla, the composer’s 1997 masterpiece for large orchestra. Cast in four movements, the twenty-five minute score is a symphonic journey into altered states, where the conscious and the subconscious merge into sonic canvases of compelling intensity and gorgeous, baroque-like excess of detail.

The extended sonic palette of Asyla includes water gongs, a bag of metal knives and forks, an upright piano tuned ¼ tone flat, a piccolo trumpet and a bass oboe, just to mention some of the instruments augmenting the full symphonic line-up. However, the unusual scoring is not an end in itself, but rather the instrumental setup is used to blur the lines between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the musical and the noise, in order to create a soundtrack that encompasses multiple layers of aural events aroud us.

In the course of Asyla, musical sequences of unique vividness are summoned by Adès, yielding to a sounding arch extending from alert wakefulness to disjointed delirium. Each of the four movements is given its distinct sonic guise, be it the contemplative realm of the second, with its notable bass oboe solo, or the wild dance rhythms of the third, scored for full orchestra.

The FRSO and Thomas Adès in rehearsal. © Jari Kallio

One of the most compelling musical portraits of the 1990s, Asyla has lost none of the past twenty four years. On the contrary, the music comes off perhaps even more vivid with time, as the spectacular performance by the FRSO under the composer. A befitting combination of raw energy and astounding finesse, Adès’s reading was, interestingly, quite different from my previous live exposure to the score with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra in September 2017. Like any masterpiece, Asyla too is open for multi-faceted interpretations, as these two unforgettable performances resoundingly demonstrate.

In the manner of Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft (1983-85), conducted by Hannu Lintu as a part of the previous FRSO festival in the fall of 2019, the performance of Asyla is to be counted among the high-points of the orchestra’s stage career at their Music Centre home thus far.

As a late-night treat, Adès and Kuusisto provided their audiences with an exquisite programme of chamber music, featuring refined performances of Igor Stravinsky’s brilliant Duo concertant (1932) and Maurice Ravel’s masterful Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major (1923-28), followed by Samuel Dushkin’s violin and piano adaptation of Stravinsky’s Tango (1940) as a witty encore. Rounding off a three-hour evening, the Adès festival was thus given a perfect conclusion.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Thomas Adès, conductor and piano

Pekka Kuusisto, violin

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1918-23)

Thomas Adès: Märchentänze (2020/2021) for violin and orchestra, world premiere

Francisco Coll: Four Iberian Miniatures (2014) for violin and orchestra

Thomas Adès: Asyla (1997) for large orchestra

Igor Stravinsky: Duo concertant (1932) for violin and piano

Maurice Ravel: Sonata for violin and piano in G major (1923-28)

Encores

Manuel de Falla: Nana from ”Siete canciones populares españolas” (1914) for violin and piano

Igor Stravinsky: Tango (1940) for violin and piano (arranged by Samuel Dushkin)

Music Centre, Helsinki

Friday 29 October, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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