From Rachmaninoff to Tarkiainen with Kirill Gerstein, the FRSO and Nicholas Collon

Kirill Gerstein, the FRSO and Nicholas Collon onstage at Helsinki Music Centre after Rachmanioff Third Piano Concerto on Wednesday. © Jari Kallio

In this week’s concerts, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Nicholas Collon introduced their in-hall and online audiences to two of the season’s key composers, that is to say Sergei Rachamaninoff, whose 150th anniversary year is at hand, and Outi Tarkiainen, one of the most interesting voices of her generation. Completing the playlist, Sir Edward Elgar joined the evening’s roster, adding further depth to the evening’s survey of orchestral finesse.

Teaming up with Kirill Gerstein, the FRSO and Collon set forth to launch the programme with a formidable outing of one of the very cornerstones of the repertoire; Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, op. 30 (1909). Given in first performances in New York City in the following fall and winter, with the composer as soloist, joined by Walter Damrosch and Gustav Mahler on the podium, the score is a feast of virtuosity and heat.

Written for solo piano and an orchestra of duple winds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals and strings, the forty-minute concerto is rooted in exceptional architectural scheme, in which much of the music is derived from the material for the wistful Allegro ma non tanto opening.

The enthralling first movement is cast in ruminative sonata form, one shrouded with shades of twilight. Out of its long shadows, rays of light emerge, setting the solo line and the orchestral parts ablaze with heat. As the music unfolds, gripping upheavals and contemplative sections alternate until the movement lands on its astounding cadenza, followed by brief orchestral recap.

Although titled as Intermezzo, the slow second movement is, in fact, an absorbing arch of variations, with references to the first movement embedded. Following without break, Rachmaninoff’s fiery Finale, marked Alla breve, again harks back to the concerto’s opening, re-examining the thematic material in the course of its many twists and turns. Eventually the movement reaches a D major zenith, closing in triumphant manner, as the music lands on the composer’s signature rhythmic cell.

Mastered with admirable articulation and compelling intensity by Gerstein, the solo part was brought to its sounding guise with marvellous sense of proportion and architecture. Focused on clarity and balance, Collon and the FRSO delivered an insightful reading of the orchestral score, putting transparency ahead of red-heated glimmer. A fine outing altogether, serving as an apt herald for the orchestra’s forthcoming Rachmaninoff cycle.

Auguring the second half, Outi Tarkiainen’sRing of Fire and Love (2020) was given in spellbinding performance. Coming off as an intense sonic oasis between the two splendid repertory items, the nine-minute score opens with buzzing oscillations for full orchestra, clad in extraordinary colours and textures. These initial turbulences are cooled down gradually over the next sixty-or-so bars, paving the way for a contemplative solo for muted trumpet. The opening material reappears for further permutations, subsequently bridging into the captivating closing tableau; an extended meditation for the trumpet soloist and orchestra, conceived in the most refined textures.

”The Ring of Fire is a volcanic belt that surrounds the Pacific Ocean and in which most of the world’s earthquakes occur. It is also the term referring to the bright ring of sunlight around the moon at the height of a solar eclipse, when the moon covers only the central part of the sun. Yet, the same expression is also used to describe what a woman feels when, as she gives birth, the baby’s head passes through her pelvis. That moment is the most dangerous in the baby’s life, its little skull being subjected to enormous pressure, preparing it for life in a way unlike any other. The Ring of Fire and Love is a work for orchestra about this earth-shattering, creative, cataclysmic moment they travel through together”, the composer writes in her program note.

An envoy of the FRSO’s forthcoming world premiere of Milky Ways (2022), Tarkiainen’s concerto for English horn and orchestra, ahead in March, Ring of Fire and Loves served as an apt introduction to the composer’s invigorating musical style.

In context of the programme, the contrast between the realms Tarkiainen’s compelling meditation and the witty orchestral tableaux of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op. 36 (1898-99) was indeed a striking one. Dedicated ”to my friends pictured within”, the thirty-five minute score is built upon fourteen ingenious variations on ”an original theme”, each inspired by characteristics of certain members of the Elgar circle. Although begun in humorous manner, the variation sequence goes far beyond musical caricature, yielding to a masterful series of orchestral studies, exploring the sonic potential of an orchestra in the most delightful manner.

Scored for fairy standard symphonic setup of duple winds, with piccolo and double bassoon added, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, organ ad lib and strings, the variations are based on a theme, expressing, according to the composer, ”the sense of the loneliness of the artist.” Titled Enigma, the origins of the G minor theme have remained somewhat obscure.

”The Enigma I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played. So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas – eg Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse and Les sept Princesses – the chief character is never on the stage”, Elgar is quoted saying in the programme note of the premiere performance.

Be the story behind the theme what it may, it nevertheless lends itself to an exemplary array of musical treatment, conveying life-like vividness, almost otherworldly serenity, sublime romance and warm-heated comedy in the most captivating manner.

For an orchestra and its conductor, the score provides some formidable challenges of dramaturgy and expression in capturing the wealth of detail and characteristics embedded. With Collon at the helm, the FRSO rose to the challenge, providing an evocative reading, one displaying admirable dexterity and appealing translucence. Again, pristine clarity took precedence over sonorous glow, shedding new light on musical detail. From the agile staccato passages of the second variation to the long-held lines of Nimrod, all the way to the quasi-cinematic ambiance of Romanza, not to mention the festivities of the final variation, the score was laid down with commitment and craft.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Nicholas Collon, conductor

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, op. 30 (1909)

Outi Tarkiainen: The Ring of Fire and Love (2020) for orchestra

Sir Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, op. 36 ”Enigma” (1898-99)

Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland

Wednesday 18 January, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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