An evening of discovery and rediscovery – celebrating Finnish music with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki

Pricipal Cello Lauri Kankkunen, Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic performing Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto (2017) at the Helsinki Music Centre on Thursday. © Jari Kallio

This week, coinciding with Jean Sibelius’s birthday, the Helsinki Philharmonic, Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki and Principal Cello Lauri Kankkunen celebrated the multi-faceted traditions of Finnish music with a joyously inventive playlist, featuring 150 years of orchestral mastery. The programme, performed on Wednesday and Thursday, brought together four very different, yet equally inspired pieces by Ingeborg von Bronsart, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kimmo Hakola and Sibelius into sonic continuum of fabulous originality.

A daughter of Finnish parents, Ingeborg von Bronsart completed her studies in Weimar with Franz Liszt and went on to pursue double career as a concert pianist and a composer. Making friends with Berlioz, Rossini and Wagner, von Bronsart became a successful composer for the theatre, with her four operas being performed widely across Germany. Following the composer’s passing in Munich in 1913, her oeuvre gradually became dormant for a century or so.

This week, one of von Bronsart’s best-loved orchestral works, the overture to the opera Jery und Bätely (1873) was re-awaken in sonic reality by Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic. The music of the overture was prepared by the orchestra’s violinist Erkki Palola, who reworked a 1879 patchwork-copy of the score into a proper performing version heard for the first time in this week’s concerts.

Scored for an orchestra of duple winds, horns, trumpets and strings, with timpani and two harps added, the Jery und Bätely Overture is awash with alluring melodies and gorgeous instrumental colour. The music opens with a graceful woodwind introduction, followed by full orchestral treatment of the material. At the heart of the overture lies a wonderful lyrical passage, celebrating the love between the opera’s main characters.

A sweeping concert opener, von Bronsart’s overture was beautifully served by the orchestra and Mälkki, who delivered a marvellously enthusiastic performance, one to put the score back on the musical map after its unduly neglect. A delightful rediscovery, Jery und Bätely Overture is indeed a worthwhile addition to the repertoire.

Written for Yo-Yo Ma, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto (2017) is a luminous affair. The latest in the series of pieces to bear the title of concerto, Cello Concerto is in good company with Salonen’s Violin Concerto (2009) for Leila Josefowicz,Piano Concerto (2007) for Yefim Bronfman and an early Concerto for Alto Saxophone (1980-81/1983) for Pekka Savijoki.

On many levels, Cello Concerto comes off as Salonen’s most original take on the genre. Although conceived in three movements, the concerto does not follow the standard fast-slow-fast scheme. Instead, Salonen’s score opens with two consecutive slow movements, markedly different from one another, followed by an extended joie de vivre finale. In addition, the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra is enriched with real-time sound design, incorporated into the musical fabric. In the second movement, extracts from the solo part are subjected to various looping procedures indicated in the score, to be projected throughout the hall with surround sound system.

While the inspired manipulation of the looped material is certainly appealing in itself, the concept yields beyond its immediate effect, resulting in an organic dialogue between the onstage soloist, his live-processed doubles and the orchestra.

Although no descriptive titles are given, there are several textural aspects and gestures suggesting cosmic metaphors. In the first two movements, Salonen’s orchestral writing is often layered, with several musical strata moving at different speeds, giving rise to mental images of ever-transforming nebulae. Out of the cloud-like hue, the solo line emerges, as if a glimmering ray of light traveling through space and time.

Following a riveting orchestral introduction, the soloist first notes emerge, leading to a passage of otherworldly contemplation. As the movement unfolds, the music travels through invigorating sonic vistas, clad in terrific instrumental raiments. The pace mounts in the middle section, as the concerto changes orbit. After hovering a while, the movement begins its sweeping descent, co-piloted by the soloist and a solo horn, Salonen’s own instrument from decades ago.

An orchestral big bang opens the second movement, leading to the condensation of an organized musical idea in the solo part. A Sibelian gesture, perhaps, the introduction paves the way for a series of spellbinding interactions between the soloist and the loops dispersed in space, joined by orchestral instruments. Altering between fully written out and free-floating segments, the soloist ventures into a solar system of musical comets, with orbiting sonic objects surrounded by harmonic clouds.

A gorgeous orchestral passage bridges the second movement to the upbeat finale. Led by the soloist, with pulsations from bongos, timpani and mallet percussion, the movement builds up to a joyful ride through a galaxy of sound. While the first two movements appear somewhat Kubrician, the finale takes us through a wormhole to an universe more akin of those created by Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas.

Virtuosic to the bone, the third movement provides the concerto with a tremendous round-off. On the closing page, the composer presents his audiences with one more surprise, as the second movement loops return on the very last bar, escorting the soloist to the world beyond the threshold of hearing.

A stupendous performance from Kankkunen, the orchestra and Mälkki, Salonen’s concerto was given an utmost refined and rousing outing. The solo part was brought to its sounding guise with myriad of colour and harmonic enchantment, while Kankkunen payed admirable attention to rhythmic finesse. With Mälkki on the podium, the orchestral fabric was laid out with translucent beauty and intricate detail. Ever immaculately aligned with their soloist, the Helsinki Philharmonic shined along their principal, yielding to teamwork at the highest level.

Composer Kimmo Hakola onstage with Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic after the premiere of WAKE! (2020). © Jari Kallio

Commissioned by the orchestra, Kimmo Hakola’s WAKE! (2020) brought the Helsinki Philharmonic back to planet Earth. A splendid twelve-minute tableau for large orchestra of triple winds, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, three percussionists, two harps, piano, celesta and full strings, WAKE! takes its cue from Sibelius’s Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899/1900), no less.

Hakola’s chosen title refers to the original version of Finlandia, written as a conclusion for Press Celebrations Music (1899), under the title of Finland Awakes. In addition, Hakola’s score is conceived as a wake-up call to a more responsible way of life, putting an end to the selfishness that is destroying human life. In musical terms, WAKE! is based on a series of musical gestures somewhat akin to those used by Sibelius some 120 years earlier.

While there are some parallels between the musical schemes of Hakola and Sibelius, WAKE! Shuns away from linear narrative. Instead, Hakola works his way through the sonic material in cyclical manner, with different musical dramaturgies at play simultaneously. The score opens with an earth-shaking tutti, followed by a sequence of brass fanfares. Heralded by a clarinet lead, woodwinds take over, and the music assumes a more meditative guise. More orchestral vehemence ensues, paving the way for strikingly lyrical central section, with soaring solo lines for clarinet and trumpet.

With mounting tension, the score builds up to its shattering climax, marked by a massive crash of Mahler hammer and cymbals. A moment of deafening silence ensues, setting the stage for elegiac coda and its haunting cor anglais solo, bringing WAKE! to its wistful close.

A powerhouse premiere, no question about it, Mälkki and the Helsinki Phiharmonic provided the audience with an invigorating outing, embedded with contemplative undercurrents. An exemplary blend of sheer sonic power and dedicated care, WAKE! was given a formidable outing in the presence of the composer, whose stage appearance was lauded with enthusiastic applause.

As its natural pairing, WAKE! was followed by a free-flowing performance of Finlandia. Making great use of the tradition etched into the history of the orchestra, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic concluded the evening with an inspired, anthem-like take on Sibelius’s best-know score, bringing their celebration of Finnish music to an elated close.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Lauri Kankkunen, cello

Ingeborg von Bronsart: Overture to ”Jery und Bätely” (1873)

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto (2017)

Kimmo Hakola: WAKE!, Op. 105 (2021) for orchestra

Jean Sibelius: Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899/1900) – Tone poem for orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki

Thursday 9 December, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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