Live review – Kirill Gerstein, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki: World premiere of Saariaho’s ‘Vista’; Schumann & Debussy

susanna-malkki

Kirill Gerstein (piano), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (above, photo (c) Jiyang Chen)

Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki
Broadcast Wednesday 12 May 2021, available online

Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 (1841)
Debussy Pièce pour Le Vêtement du blessé (unknown, publ. 1925); Berceuse héroïque (1914); Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon (unknown, publ. 2001); Élégie; Étude retrouvée (both 1915)
Saariaho Vista (2019, world premiere)

Written by Ben Hogwood

One of the very few advantages of being restricted to online concerts in the last year has been the chance to enjoy music making on an international scale. This happily gave the opportunity to hear a major world premiere, a new orchestral work from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

A truly international piece, Vista was co-commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Its title page has the inscription For Susanna – presumably a dedication to the night’s conductor, Susanna Mälkki.

Although scored for a large orchestra, Vista is economical in its use of the forces. Inspired by road signs the composer saw in California – all promising great ‘vistas’ – the work has something of the West Coast about it, a shimmering heat haze and dust on the horizon. In its darker moments the twinkling of the stars, and the metropolis, can be discerned.

Vista impressed from the outset. Its first section, Horizons, began with a high oboe solo, played with very impressive control in this performance. As always with Saariaho’s music, the vivid colours in the orchestra made themselves known early on and after the initial intimacy of the wind instruments the view panned out appreciably, to an expansive picture.

Microtones and almost imperceptible changes in pitch were part of the evocation, and when the music alighted on a particular pitch the effect was striking. Saariaho’s music continuously evolved – shimmering, glistening, darkening, lightening, or casting shadow, as it did in a particularly vivid section where the metallic percussion took centre stage. Here the twinkling of glockenspiel contrasted with the spidery flurries of the strings.

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Targets, the second section, began with a blast of sound, before brass and strings were involved in dialogue – and we heard a flurry of activity from the whole orchestra, after which all the forces reached the same pitch, the view panning out again. Now the vista was nocturnal, with a shiver in the air.

Saariaho (above) was present, and in a rather moving response to the piece the orchestra and conductor applauded the composer, rather than the other way around. It is always difficult to appraise a major orchestral piece on the basis of its premiere, but on this evidence Vista is a major achievement and a piece to return to as often, Thankfully Mälkki is conducting it with the Berliner Philharmoniker on 22 May, but this was a special performance from the composer’s ‘home’ orchestra.

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Elsewhere on the program we enjoyed a fresh, vibrant performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in which the soloist was Kirill Gerstein (above). He clearly enjoys the piece, and the fast movements were notable for the clarity of their phrasing and lightness of touch. The first movement had an attractive lilt and some very appealing dialogue with the orchestra woodwind, oboe particularly. The slow movement gave plenty of room for Schumann’s softer sentiments, and the finale danced attractively.

The Schumann was complemented by some well-chosen solo Debussy, Gerstein opting for five lesser-known piano works. A palette-cleansing Pièce pour Le Vêtement du blesse, a posthumous publication, was followed by the steady tread of the Berceuse héroïque, given a solemn account. Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon was next, a piece unearthed in 2001 – sounding like a previously unreleased Prélude in these descriptive hands. The profound Élégie was next, then a rippling Étude retrouvée, a seldom-heard study written prior to the book of Études in 1915.

This was a fine concert, nicely structured and pointed towards the Saariaho – which fully lived up to its billing. Catch it if you can!

You can watch the concert on the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra website here

For more information on the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra digital season, you can visit their website here

In concert – ORF Vienna Radio SO / Marin Alsop: Musikprotokoll 2020 – Hidden Sounds

Joonas Ahonen (piano), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop

Saariaho Chimera (2019) Austrian premiere
Maintz Piano Concerto (2014) Austrian premiere
López Disparates (2004-06) Austrian premiere

Helmut List Halle, Graz
Friday 9 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its 53rd season, the Musikprotokoll festival in Graz has long been synonymous with some of Austria’s most innovative music-making, with this evening’s concert from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and its current chief conductor Marin Alsop being no exception. Notable too was the sizable audience – notwithstanding the needs of social distancing – and its enthusiasm for a programme, as concise as it was uncompromising, which contained music by a younger Austrian composer and one who has been resident in that country over the past three decades.

First, though, a curtain-raiser by Kaija Saariaho – the Finnish composer who has long resided in Paris, whose output features harmonic subtlety and timbral finesse as its hallmarks. Both of these were present in Chimera – an oblique homage to Beethoven in the 250th anniversary of his birth, in which material from her earlier orchestral piece Orion was (almost) book-ended by the beginning and ending of that composer’s Second Symphony. The result was diverting if insubstantial, redolent of Berio’s re-imaginings while assuredly not outstaying its welcome.

Among the leading Austrian composers of his generation, Philipp Maintz (b1977) evidently wrote or at least began several piano concertos prior to completing the one heard tonight. He has spoken of admiration for the Ligeti and Lutosławski concertos, as well as his nonplussed regard for the Schoenberg; yet this latter soon came to mind in a piece whose four continuous movements take in a gradual accumulation of energy, followed by two contrasting intermezzi then a further and more rapid gathering of momentum toward the emphatic close. Connecting the whole are brief recitative-like passages as cede the foreground to a soloist whose dextrous pianism is otherwise embedded into the overall texture. Joonas Ahonen was an alert and agile soloist in music that requires, and received, acute coordination with orchestra and conductor.

Championed by such conductors as Michael Gielen, Peter Eötvös and Ilan Volkov, Jorge E. López (above) eschews both the gnomic intricacies of new-complexity and ironic self-regard of post-modernism in drawing resourcefully on the past for a provocative challenge to the future; not least those symphonic works as dominate his recent output. Leading into them is Disparates, described as a ‘Goya / Beethoven homage’ that draws parallels between the artist’s desolate late sketches with the composer’s equally gnomic Six Bagatelles from much the same time.

The sequence is no mere orchestration or paraphrase of piano originals. Its sepulchral textures thrown into relief by glassy asides from Stroh violin, the first piece merges reluctantly into the militaristic march-past of its successor, then on to those stark pathos and disjunctive contrasts of the two that follow. Fusing aspects of the final two bagatelles, the fifth piece veers between fraught eloquence and glowering recessional as it lurches on to an ending bereft of meaningful closure: Goya’s ominous imagery and Beethoven’s flights of fancy united in unwitting accord.

An engrossing and disquieting sequence, which yet offers a direct way into López’s singular musical ethos. The VRSO responded with verve and no little virtuosity to Alsop’s animated prompting, so rounding off what was an intriguing fixture in this always enterprising festival.

This concert can be seen and heard at the Musikprotokoll website

Wigmore Mondays: Danny Driver plays Dreamscapes by Messiaen, Saariaho, Ligeti & Schumann

Danny Driver (piano, above – photo credit Richard Haughton)

Messiaen Prélude No 5 (Les sons impalpables du reve) (1928-9) (2:36-8:15 on the broadcast link below)

Saaraiaho Ballade (2005) (8:30-15:06)

Ligeti Étude No 6 (Automne à Varsovie) (1985) (15:29-20:37)

Schumann Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) (23:17-59:32)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 March 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating program from Danny Driver on the theme of ‘Dreamscapes’, an hour away from reality in the company of composers intent on using the piano to express new harmonies and colours.

Few 20th century composers had a greater sense of colour than Olivier Messiaen, and the vivid shades of his Prélude No.5 began the recital. Titled Les sons impalpables du reve (The Impalpable Sounds of a Dream), it was described by its composer as ‘polymodal, consisting of a blue-orange mode with a chordal ostinato and cascades of chords, and a violet-purple mode having a copper timbre. Note the pianistic writing, composed of triple notes, rapid passages in chords, canon in contrary motion, hand crossing, various staccatos, brassy louré, gem effects’. All elements to enjoy in Driver’s richly textured performance, from 2:36 on the broadcast link above – with a questioning feel to some of the harmonic phrases.

Then a relative rarity, a piano work by Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer whose output until now has largely concentrated on the orchestra and works for the stage. This time the composer ‘wanted to write music with a melody that grows out of the texture before descending into it again; a work that constantly shifts from a complex, multi-layered texture to concentrated single lines and back again’. From 8:30 on the broadcast you will hear the Ballade under the assured control of Driver, in a performance of great intensity that plummets back to earth at the end.

For the third of this group Driver intriguingly chose Ligeti’s Étude no.6 (15:29) – with the immediately recognisable, rarefied sound world of the composer. The fingers of the right hand worked largely in octaves here, with richly layered music supporting the descending melodies – until absolutely everything descended at the end in Driver’s powerhouse performance.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana is a group of eight pieces inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantasy on the imaginary musician Johannes Kreisler. Each of the sections is in direct contrast to its neighbour, reflecting the character’s manic depression – with which Schumann may have felt an affinity given his own extremely variable state of mind. Certainly inspiration was at hand for this substantial work, which he completed in the space of just four days in 1838, before revisiting slightly in 1850.

Inevitably the muse of Clara Schumann, Robert’s soon-to-be-wife, is close at hand – and explains the outpouring of feeling in each of the works. The pieces vary between between dramatic, tempestuous fantasies such as the first, third and seventh numbers, and deeply personal thoughts expressed in beautiful surroundings, as in the second piece, the longest in the cycle by far.

Schumann sets up a tonal conflict, too – the fast pieces are in the minor key, and most rooted on G – nos. 3, 5, 7 & 8 fall into this category – while the slower, tender pieces (2, 4 & 6) are conceived around B flat major, G minor’s closest relative. The tension between the two, as well as an abundance of melodic material, lay at the heart of Danny Driver’s interpretation.

Driver clearly loves this music, and gave a passionate performance, enjoying the unbroken stream of inspiration in the first piece (23:17), then the repose and reflection in the second (26:14), the pianist allowing plenty of room for thought and contrast between the faster episodes in this much longer piece.

The third piece set up an excitable drama (36:36) with a commanding left hand, while the fourth responded once more with calm introspection (41:45). The fifth piece was detached in this performance, quite an edgy main idea (45:30) giving way to a more graceful centre. Appropriately the sun appeared during the sixth piece (49:18), giving a promise of the spring we are all hoping will arrive soon – and then Driver tore into the seventh piece with relish (53:32).

Any performance of Kreisleriana lives or dies by the last piece, a playful but rather haunting finale (55:56) that rises and falls like a bird on the wing. Driver caught its essence superbly here, with plenty of give and take in the tempo to give the melody its natural rise and fall. Schumann’s music is at its most exquisite here.

For an encore Driver turned full circle, bringing us back to Messiaen for another Prélude – his first, La colombe (The Dove) – a sign that birds would be his principal subject matter when writing music!

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which in the absence of a version from Driver includes Alfred Brendel’s recording of Kreisleriana:

Danny Driver’s discography includes a recent landmark recording of piano concertos by women composers for Hyperion, bringing the works of Dorothy Howell, Amy Beach and Cécile Chaminade: