Refined Heininen premiere and gripping Shostavkovich concerto with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the FRSO and Dima Slobodeniouk

Conductor Dima Slobodeniouk holding the score of Paavo Heininen’s Seventh Symphony after the world premiere with the FRSO at the Helsinki Music Centre on Friday. © Jari Kallio

A musical event bearing extraordinary aura came to pass at the Helsinki Music Centre on Friday, as the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and their guest conductor Dima Slobodeniouk presented the full house with a tremendous pairing of a substantial symphonic world premiere and a 20th century concertante masterstroke, with Patricia Kopatchinskaja as soloist.

Aptly reversing the usual concert scheme, the evening began with the first performance of Paavo Heininen’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 144 (2021), followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1947-48) on the second half.

As a pre-eminent composer and pedagogue, Heininen has been one of the key figures of Finnish modernism for almost sixty years. Not only has he written a notably diverse body of works for the concert hall and stage alike, but Heininen has also taught several generations of composers, including Jukka Tiensuu, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg. Although there are several strata running through the Heininen oeuvre, his cycle of symphonies certainly forms one of its main lines.

Heininen composed his First Symphony in 1958, followed by three more between 1962 and 1971. More than thirty years had elapsed until the Fifth finally emerged in 2002. Another thirteen years went by before the premiere of the Sixth took place in 2015. Over the past couple of years, the composer was busy at work with two symphonies, despite his serious illness.

For his Seventh Symphony, Heininen adopts a five-movement arch form. At the core of the symphony lies Nucleus, the most elaborate and extended of the movements. A one-movement symphony of its own right, perhaps, Nucleus is framed by two preludes and two postludes. Titled Ludus and Nimbus, as well as Cantus and Hymnus, the outer movements are conceived in pairs that contrast and complement each other.

Scored for a large orchestra of triple winds and brass, with full strings as well as saxophone quartet, two harps, piano, harpsichord, timpani and mallet percussion, the Seventh is an immersive affair. Despite its formidable instrumental line-up, it is a symphony of sublime textures and refined juxtapositions between the most elaborate musical characteristics.

The orchestra seldom comes together in full. Rather, Heininen makes great use of all the musical ensembles concealed within the vast instrumental body at his disposal. The large orchestra is thus not an end of itself, but an inevitable outcome of the colours and textures called forth by the symphony’s inner logic. There is nothing showy in the score, yet the Seventh Symphony is one of the most captivating orchestral works written in this century.

Interestingly, Heininen’s symphonic design resonates with several twentieth century orchestral masterpieces, none of them titled as symphonies proper. On its surface, one can hear passing echoes of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, whereas the arch-like overall form bears inevitable connotations with Belá Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), a score initially titled as Symphony. Yet none of these (free) associations grasp very essence of Heininen’s score.

There is certainly something Sibelian in the nature of the symphony’s organic development. Yet the sonic guises of the music hardly bear much resemblance with that of Sibelius. Neither does Heininen’s Seventh sound like the late symphonies of his compatriots Einojuhani Rautavaara and Aulis Sallinen. In fact, the symphony is, paradoxically, both extremely elusive and firmly established. It is one of those works that simply need to be heard.

The first prelude, Ludus, seems to have no beginning. It simply emerges. The music takes shape, sublimely, and builds up to a sequence of fast pulsations, weightlessly hovering in mid-air. According to the composer’s program note, the images of the starry sky and morning mists are bound to the second prelude, Nimbus. Although the music is not programmatic per se, one could re-imagine the movement as an operatic interlude.

The main movement, befittingly titled as Nucleus, comes off as an almost self-contained dramatic episode, where several musical paths cross each other in the most dazzling ways imaginable. A symphony within symphony, the movement fulfills the Mahlerian maxim of universality, without sounding nothing like Mahler.

Cantus, the first of the two postludes, contains musical material first devised by the composer for his father’s funeral in the 1960s. However, Heininen’s personal allusion does not stand out, but is delicately woven into the instrumental fabric. Perhaps the most predominantly narrative of the five movements, Cantus is a deeply moving musical entity.

Conceived as the symphony’s finale, the second postlude, Hymnus contains some of the most restless and unquiet music in the score. Coined extrovert by the composer, there are intense contrast within the orchestral fabric. Yet, none of these contrast are imposed on the listener. Rather, they work their way through one’s musical empathy and compassion, yielding to a compelling conclusion.

A tremendous first performance from the FRSO and Slobodeniouk, Heininen’s Seventh was given an absolutely wonderful world premiere. Ever translucent and beautifully detailed, the symphony’s refined textures were laid out with dedicated perfection by the orchestra. Marvellously conceived by Slobodeniouk, the symphony’s formidable architecture was wondrously woven into its elusive fabric, giving rise to one of the most moving symphonic firsts in living memory.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja taking her bow after the Shostakovich Violin Concerto. © Jari Kallio

Given the multi-layered nature of Heininen’s score, the Seventh is a symphony that calls for repeated hearings. At first sight, the listener can only grasp some of its many secrets, so one hopes that there are more performances to follow soon. Be that as it may, on-demand streaming of the premiere webcast is wholeheartedly recommended.

After the intermission, a shattering take on Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 was heard. Written in 1947-48, during an era of severe censorship under the Zhdanov Doctrine, Shostakovich’s score is both a twentieth century masterstroke and a deeply painful personal statement. Cast in four movements, the concerto is adopts a symphonic overall scheme, with two harrowing slow movements, the opening Nocturne and the third movement Passagalia, contrasted by a demonic Scherzo and the rampant festivity of the Burlesque finale.

The solo violin part calls forth both technical virtuosity and emotional sensitivity. The soloist must assume the role of a protagonist in Shostakovich devastatingly surreal, and undoubtedly autobiographical play, while the orchestra and conductor set the stage for each of the four acts. With each scene change, stark contrasts appear. The last two movements are bridged together by a staggering cadenza. The scherzo is noted by the (presumably) first appearance of the DSCH motif, the composer’s musical signature.

Performed with riveting intensity by Koptachinskaja, the FRSO and Sobodeniouk, the Violin Concerto made a profound impact on Friday evening. Even though almost seventy five years have passed since the concerto was written, the music has lost none of its poignancy. At the Helsinki Music Centre, Shostakovich’s sonic testimony, which initially had to wait seven years before it was premiered in 1955, sounded out the mental imagery of the oppressed with compelling directness. In our world today, the concerto’s core message is echoed as relevant as ever. Skilfully balanced and enthrallingly paced, the performance was a powerful one indeed.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Dima Slobodeniouk, conductor

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin

Paavo Heininen: Symphony No. 7, Op. 144 (2021), world premiere

Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1947-48)

Music Centre, Helsinki

Friday 26 November, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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