In concert – Aris Quartet play Schulhoff, Kurtág & Mendelssohn @ Wigmore Hall

Aris 5

Schulhoff 5 Pieces for String Quartet (1924)
Kurtág Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky Op.28 (1988-9)
Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op.44/1 (1838)

Aris Quartet (above, photograph (c) Sophie Walter) [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 October 2021, 1pm

Written by Ben Hogwood (reviewed live from online stream below)

The Aris Quartet are part of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, and this was their first appearance at the Wigmore Hall. They presented themselves as a lively ensemble who clearly enjoy their music, and they played with sensitivity and panache

Also revealed was a strong instinct for programming. Schulhoff’s 5 Pieces for String Quartet are beginning to make themselves known more in the concert hall, presenting as they do a number of sides of this unique musical personality. The Czech composer was arrested in Prague before he could be issued with a visa to emigrate to Moscow in the Second World War, and died at the Wülzburg concentration camp at the age of 48. His music is still relatively young in its exposure because of this, only really coming through in the 1990s. Initial criticism from those sceptical at his integration of jazz and dance forms is giving way to more outright respect, and – as could be seen here – the 5 Pieces make a great start to a concert.

The Aris Quartet gave a vibrant account of the first movement, marked Alla Valse viennese, but soon a chill was forming as the Alla Serenata progressed, its ghostly presence reminiscent of early Shostakovich. The muted instruments danced over a distracted drone from the cello before biting hard in a sequence that was almost anti-lyrical. There was an impressive cut and thrust to the Alla Czeca, bringing out the composer’s heritage, then an attractive sway to the Alla Tango milonga, beautifully played but with an unexpectedly ominous finish. Finally the buzz of the lively Alla Tarantella set a strong unison violin melody against brisk viola and cello.

Officium breve by György Kurtág was next, a requiem to fellow Hungarian composer Andreae Szervánszky. By his standards it is a lengthy piece indeed, but with 15 sections in barely 12 minutes it was packed with compressed melodies of great intensity. Kurtág is a master in obtaining deep expression from the shortest of phrases, achieving this through carefully pointed melodies and highly imaginative quartet textures. Such a thorough knowledge of string quartet capabilities informs the many sides of grief felt here, and the Aris Quartet reveled in the nuances of the piece. The gripping account took hold from the distracted opening, where cellist Lukas Sieber effectively set out the pitches of the open strings of hit instrument, to savage chords wrought with pure anger later on. The composer’s use of microtones was deeply expressive, as were the ‘double stopping’ passages, the quartet playing as one instrument with eight or more voices. It was a moving and mind-expanding performance.

A wholesale change of mood took us to Mendelssohn, and the joyous outpouring of the first in his trio of quartets published as Op.44. Anna Katharina Wildermuth’s songful first violin was key here, but so were the quartet textures, with lots going on but impressive clarity to reveal the dialogue between the instruments. This was a lovely, fluid performance, with a sunny first movement giving way to a less excitable but equally persuasive Menuetto, showing off its rhythms and soft-hearted theme. Feelings ran deep in the slow movement, especially in the minor key episode, where Wildermuth probed deeper with her phrasing. The finale recaptured the mood of the first movement, good spirits bubbling over to cap an affectionate and energetic performance.

It was great to see an ensemble playing as one with such obvious enthusiasm and commitment for the music, and based on this evidence the Aris Quartet have a bright future indeed. Watch the concert stream and see for yourself!

You can also listen to the repertoire from the Aris Quartet’s concert on this Spotify playlist:

For more information on the Aris Quartet visit their website

Talking Heads: Christian Gerhaher

christian-gerhaher-ABasta-for-Sony-BMG_5782_02

Interview with Ben Hogwood

Arcana is fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to talk with Christian Gerhaher. The German baritone has been singing in Salzburg with friends when we speak. It is the morning after, and in spite of a gruelling concert including major song cycles by Berlioz and Schoeck, he sounds invigorated on the other end of the telephone. “It was a very difficult program, but with some fantastic works”, he enthuses. “We did a new string sextet version of the Berlioz cycle Les nuits d’été, arranged by David Matthews, which was really wonderful. I was performing with the best musicians imaginable – Isabelle Faust, Anna Katharina Schreiber, Danusha Waskiewicz, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Christian Poltéra.

The composer bringing us together for this conversation, however, is Robert Schumann. Together with his long-term musical partner, pianist Gerold Huber, Gerhaher has completed a mammoth project recording the composer’s songs (or ‘Lieder’) for voice and piano. The result is an 11-CD set released this month by Sony Classical, the culmination of many years’ hard work and dedication. Christian receives my congratulations on the pair’s achievement with characteristic warmth. “Thank you very much. Yesterday I got the box, and it was touching because we have worked for such a long time, and so intensely, to achieve this!”

Gerhaher is an engaging interviewee, generous with his answers. We begin by casting his mind back to see if he can recall his very first encounter with the Lieder of Schumann? “Yes – it was a recital by the baritone Hermann Prey. He was performing Dichterliebe, and the Kerner songs. I was especially touched by Dichterliebe, which was a kind of upbeat for my work with Gerold in the Lieder repertoire.”

What was it about the composer’s music that drew him in? “Schumann is very well known now, with titles like Dichterliebe or the Eichendorff cycle, the Heine cycle Liederkreis Op.24, and the Kerner songs, maybe Myrthen, the Op.25”, he recounts, “but I discovered that there are so many songs, 299 in all! I got so completely involved in Schumann singing. I was always addicted to his piano music when I was young, but then I found out that every song, when Gerold and I did them for the first time, was amazing and so full of possible meaning. It would have been so sad to leave these songs undiscovered. We make our repertoire bigger and bigger, if possible, but then came this opportunity of recording, and we thought it was the perfect way to get to know Schumann as well as possible. I must say apart from one or two songs I love them all. I can’t say there is one weak song. In the first ‘Liederjahr’ (Schumann’s first ‘Year of Song’) in 1840, where he happened to deliver 140 masterworks from nothing, there is no song there that is boring, bad or strange. It’s just incredible what a pianist like him could deliver out of no development, from the beginning it was perfect. The 1850 songs are the same. It’s amazing.”

His wonder at Schumann is only enhanced by these lesser-known songs, and our conversation alights on the set of six Gesänge published as Op.107, an intimate and emotional set. “They are”, he agrees. “What I thought quite early on with Gerold is that there is a cyclic idea behind each of Schumann’s opus numbers. Altogether there are 45 separate lieder opuses. Two of them are complete opuses with one song only (Der Handschuh and Belsatzar) but the rest are cycles. We had a very interesting idea concerning these cycles, which is that the form of each is always different. You have so many different ways of completing a song cycle, in the narrative. You have the Kerner songs, and you have the fantastic wedding gift of Myrthen, which speaks for itself as a song cycle, but there are also cycles which are conceived just for one work. The four books of Myrthen always end with two songs by the same poet, like two people standing together at the end of a book – a loving couple.”

He finds another example. “You also have the Op.83, which is an opus reflecting the number ‘3’. There are three songs, and the last song for example, which is a perfect strophic song, is reflecting the trinity of God. You have the three forms of songs – a strophic strong, a very strophic song, and a through composed song, which is the first one. Then you have the number three in people – a loving couple who decide to have a child in the middle of no.2. These go on and on, it is astonishing.”

Gerhaher’s partnership with Gerold Huber (above) exists on wholly equal terms. “Certainly, it is never a case of piano accompaniment. Gerold is a ‘Lied pianist’, not an accompanist. For me it is one of the major achievements of my life, like having a wife that I love, to have Gerold as my best friend. We have been working together for 33 years now!”

It must have been special for the two embarking on this particular voyage of discovery together. “Yes. It was demanding, though,” he says with understatement, “and you have to decide which songs you would add to the recording and those where you think do not match what you were expecting to record. When we had to choose other singers to do the work you can’t do yourself it was really a big mountain to climb, but it was one of the major achievements of my life.”

The guest singers tend to appear on the songs where more than one vocalist is required, or where the range goes beyond that of a baritone. How were they chosen? “By sympathy and by professional admiration,” he says, “but what I like very much is not to choose singers for a quartet or trio that have very similar voices. That is a very important thing to think about, getting the ensemble right. I like to have very different voices, like a light tenor or a soprano, and an alto which is darker. Having different voices is very important in an ensemble because the identity of a voice and person with a sung role is important, to keep this identity as strong as possible. It vanishes in comparison with a solo song, but I did not want a perfect unity in the quartet songs.”

When preparing their interpretations, Gerhaher was mindful of the lives of the poets whose text Schumann was setting. “Yes, certainly”, he says warmly. “How could I not be? Some of the poets are quite unknown, so it was a curiosity that led to nothing because the information did not always give me any advantage. The other thing is that Schumann as an artist didn’t, in my eyes, try to perfectly match the possible meaning of the text he was putting into music. That means he never tries to understand a poem entirely, in the way of noting down the certain meaning. I understand literary lyricism as an open field of thoughts and associations which are not strictly written. There are many possible meanings coming together and not being nailed down with a solution. This is what Schumann does, and he even adds something to the lyricism by obliterating some possible meanings, or bending the meaning of a poem to make it more complicated than it is. He does this not only by putting a poem into music but sometimes by combining poems into his cycles, as combinations which have no relation to each other.”

He gives an example. “In the Op.96 the second song, called Schneeglöckchen, is about one of the first flowers coming out after winter. They are tiny, white flowers, with a small green line on the end of the blossoms. The song is about a winter storm coming in and saying to the Schneeglöckchen, ‘Look, you have to vanish – the storm is coming, and you can’t survive here. The song says, you have such a strange uniform, white with this green strip. The poet is anonymous, and you don’t really know what the whole song is about – it’s a total mystery.” He has a solution. “It’s not about springtime, or the end of winter, but I thought about the colours of the flower in uniforms of old soldiers. I found one uniform of a Hanover group of soldiers, fighting alongside England in the seven-year war of the 1750s. There was one battle in the East of Germany where the Austrians were pushing them away from south to north. They had to flee, and I assume there was a soldier, one of them wounded, and they told him ‘Come with us, we can’t stay here’. He couldn’t, because he was wounded, and was like this strange Schneeglöckchen which couldn’t flee to the north. Why should a Schneeglöckchen flee to the north? If anything it should flee to the south. It’s so complicated, so strange, and so full of mystery and even nonsense. This is what I love with Schumann’s songs and understanding of poetry. He doesn’t deliver a solution – he makes it complicated.”

Gerhaher is a compelling speaker. With Schumann’s music so wholly absorbed in his own consciousness, does he think the approach he described appeals to audiences? “Yes, though you can’t always explain the complications by words, or even explain the meaning. You just show them how complicated music, art and poetry is. There’s nothing to be understood easily in coming to one meaning, like in opera maybe. It’s not a concrete art, it is more abstract.”

He trained with one of the greatest Lieder singers of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This great German baritone recorded much of Schumann’s Lieder output for Deutsche Grammophon, though Gerhaher did not spend too much time listening to his mentor’s interpretations. “Certainly I had some different ideas. He was on one hand my hero, but our purpose was different. The cyclic intention of Schumann is what we think is important to us. Dietrich was taking songs out of opuses that he thought he could sing well, and others he neglected, which is against the cyclic idea. On the other hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we are right, it’s just our idea of how to perform them.”

He cites another set of the complete songs, curated by Graham Johnson for Hyperion. “He did the entire songs, but he was choosing different singers for song cycles. For my eyes I would rather cast them with one singer to keep the identity of thought. We have our own ideas, and I think they are important to ourselves, not to the truth as such.”

As they recorded more of Schumann’s work, how did their feelings towards the composer develop – and in particular the struggles he experienced with his mental health? “Schumann was always in my eyes a perfect artist, or the image of an artist. An idea which I got later on is that you have these two different groups of songs – the songs with one person singing, and the songs with different people singing. I think the illusion of a voice representing the lyrical ego of singing a song, which is an illusion of a story going on, on a stage, that is easily understood by everyone as an illusion, this disappears immediately when several people are singing together. The singularity of one fabric is vanishing, so you have two different possibilities of song. You have the songs I recorded and sing for one person, which are in Schumann’s case representing his world of emotion, his difficult world of depression where he was getting sicker and sicker. The other world, with these many people singing together, has a very special sweetness sometimes – you could say it’s on the border of being kitschy. This made me think of Schumann conceiving these song cycles as a perfect and unproblematic world which he doesn’t live in, but which he wishes for himself. It’s two layers of life, very differently handled by him. This is my idea, I can’t prove it!”

In Christian’s view, what are the qualities required to be a successful Schumann singer? “I would say everyone can do it as they want, as they feel. Certainly for me, being a good singer with my own purposes would mean to have a lot of colour. This is the advantage of singing alone as opposed to other people at the same time. The other thing is the pronunciation of the German language in Schumann songs is especially important. I would say all these layers of colour add to the occasion, to the author as a kind of painting with many colours. You can only deliver them if the pronunciation, as a first instance of colourisation, is done in a perfect way. That means the pronunciation and the understanding of sung words in German is very much depending on the right vowel.”

Finally, as Gerhaher moves towards his next interview, what are his favourite instrumental pieces by our chosen composer? “I admire EVERYTHING by Schumann,” he says warmly, “but there are some pieces without which I can’t imagine a meaningful life: Szenen aus Goethes Faust, the Violin Concerto, and of course the piano works. I think especially of the Symphonische Etüden, Kinderszenen, Waldszenen, Intermezzi, 7 Clavierstücke in Fughettenform, Gesänge der Frühe, and the Geistervariationen.” With that he moves on – leaving us with a remarkable legacy of Lieder recordings to enjoy.

Alle Lieder, the box set of Schumann’s complete songs, is out now on Sony Classical – and you can listen to any of the 299 songs on Spotify here:

You can also watch Christian Gerhaher singing his Salzburg program of Berlioz and Schoeck in this concert stream from the Wigmore Hall in London, which also includes a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht:

In concert – Boris Giltburg plays Ravel, Schumann & Prokofiev @ Wigmore Hall

boris-giltburg

Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)
Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5)
Ravel La valse (1920)

Boris Giltburg (piano, above)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 October 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

This review marks your correspondent’s first visit to the Wigmore Hall for 18 months – after weekly coverage of the hall’s wonderful Monday lunchtime series. It was so good to be back! In that time it seems the core audience has changed, dropping by a couple of decades at least. This could be due to understandable caution on the part of the older members of the audience to get back to the post-Coronavirus version of concert life, but it is more likely to be the regular streaming of concerts that has lured in a much younger generation. This concert was streamed (you can watch below) and, for the record, the audience were enthusiastic and immaculately behaved – in fact there was a celebratory atmosphere.

Boris Giltburg fully inhabited the positivity. The pianist was beginning a new, two-year look at the piano music of Ravel, and if this first instalment was anything to go by, we are in for a treat. Giltburg’s first selection concentrated on the waltz in its many forms – with two very different approaches to triple time from Ravel, complemented by Schumann and Prokofiev.

It was with the coruscating tones of the latter’s Piano Sonata no.6 in A major that Giltburg began, something of a shock to unaccustomed ears with its discordant language. This underrated work is first in a trilogy of sonatas written during World War Two. The impact was immediate and confrontational, delivered with impressive force but also control. The serrated edges of the first movement were complemented by a poetic second theme, and the tension relaxed a little further for the second movement’s witty march. The right hand of the piano drew parallels with the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, as the left hand ascended with a probing melody. The slow movement had a softer, yearning heart, though the dissonant harmonies lingered around the edges, before the runaway theme of the finale took hold. This could easily be a silent film soundtrack, but its cat and mouse nature was challenged and ultimately caught by the reappearance of the first movement’s angular melody. Giltburg staged a profound drama between these elements before bringing the sonata to a shattering conclusion.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was next, providing a relatively controlled contrast to the Prokofiev’s unwieldly ways. Giltburg enjoyed the music greatly, swaying to the rhythms as he played. His control was immaculate but the rhythmic profile of the waltzes was instinctive, holding back or pressing forward as appropriate. A tender, intimate second waltz (marked Assez lent – avec une expression intense) brought the audience in closer, while the fourth waltz (Assez animé) twinkled in the night air. Giltburg could be forceful when needed, as in the first (Modéré) and seventh (Moins vif) waltzes, and his Épilogue was exquisitely voiced.

The second half began with Schumann’s Carnaval, a tableau of portraits and personal insights completed in the composer’s mid-twenties. Schumann’s ability to paint vivid pictures at the piano is rightly celebrated, and the sketches here were rich in colour and implied detail. Giltburg relished the extravert Florestan as much as he did the reserved poetry of Eusebius, both sections portraying the personality of Schumann himself. The nagging ‘answer’ motif of Pierrot left its mark, as did the repeated notes of Reconaissance. Meanwhile Papillons quoted from one of Schumann’s first piano pieces with a slightly shy countenance. Schumann’s portraits of Chopin and Paganini were once again fascinating in their insights, while finally the triumphant Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins carried all before it in a triumphant account.

As did Ravel’s La valse, which followed, though here there was a very different outcome. La valse describes the destruction wrought by the First World War, its closing bars collapsing in vivid imagery, but it could just as easily describe elements of our civilization over the last few years. Giltburg seemed to inhabit that possibility, the warm-hearted dance dropping in temperature as his account progressed, until the end when it was rumbling throughout the piano in a self-destructive whirlpool. This is a fiendishly difficult transcription, but Giltburg made it seem effortless as he inhabited each and every twist and turn, hurling out the final pages with formidable power.

After this alarming turn of events we returned to the solace of Giltburg’s first encore, a limpid Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2 by Brahms, then marvelled at the passion in his second choice, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12. A memorable recital, and an auspicious start to what promises to be a great series. Best experienced in person rather than online though!

You can listen to the repertoire from Boris Giltburg’s concert on this Spotify playlist, which includes the pianist’s recordings of the Prokofiev, Schumann and Rachmaninov:

For more information on Boris Giltburg you can visit his website

On record – Villa-Lobos: Choral Transcriptions (São Paulo Symphony Choir / Valentina Peleggi) (Naxos)

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Villa-Lobos transcriptions of:

Bach Prelude and Fugue no.8 in E flat minor / D sharp minor BWV853, Prelude no.14 in F sharp minor BWV883; Fugues – no.1 in C major, BWV846; no.5 in D major, BWV874; no.21 in B flat major, BWV866; no. 22 in B flat minor BWV867
Beethoven Adagio cantabile Op.13/2
Chopin Waltz no.7 in C sharp minor Op.64/2
Massenet Élégie Op.10/5
Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte in E major Op.30/3
Rachmaninov Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3/2
Schubert Ständchen D957/3
Schumann Träumerei Op.15/7
Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras no.9 W449

São Paulo Symphony Choir / Valentina Peleggi

Naxos 8.574286 [58’32”] English and Portuguese translations included

Producer Ulrich Schneider
Engineers Marcio Jesus Torres, Camilla Braga Marciano, Fabio Myiahara

Recorded: 5-10 August 2019 at Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos’s coverage of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (part of this label’s series The Music of Brazil) continues with a selection of mainly transcriptions from the piano repertoire that the composer undertook during the mid-1930s as part of his extensive educational commitments.

What’s the music like?

Almost all these arrangements emerged in the period 1932-5, when Villa-Lobos took on the challenge of overhauling music education in the public school system of Rio de Janeiro. This involved the creation, virtually from scratch, of a choral pedagogy that he drew from across the spectrum of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music. It is a measure of his prowess that such transformation from mostly piano sources was accomplished with unfailing rigour and an idiomatic quality, so the fame of the originals is almost the only clue to their provenance.

From the soulful strains of among the most mellifluous from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, the programme then continues with the Eighth Prelude and Fugue from the first book of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier – the former piece summoning a plangently rhetorical response which finds pertinent contrast with the latter piece’s methodical and intricate build-up to a culmination of sombre eloquence. The arrangement of Dreaming from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood fully conveys its wistful pathos, as does that of the First Fugue from Bach’s WTC the original’s cool elegance. Similarly, the last of Schubert’s Serenade settings loses little of this song’s plaintiveness, and the Twenty-First Fugue from Bach’s WTC takes on unexpected jauntiness in what proves one of Villa-Lobos’s most inspiriting re-creations.

Chopin’s Waltzes might be considered unsuited to the vocal medium, yet the C sharp minor responds ably to such elaboration, as too the ruminative calm of the Twenty-Second Prelude from Bach’s WTC. Rachmaninov might have thought better of his Prelude in C sharp minor had he encountered this uninhibitedly dramatic realization, with basses providing the baleful anchorage, in contrast to the yearning aura drawn from the Fourteenth Prelude of the second book from Bach’s WTC. Massenet’s Elegy exceeds the original song for bittersweet poise, a foil to the serenity of the Fifth Fugue from Bach’s WTC. The indelible main melody from the Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique segues ideally into the Ninth Bachianas Brasileiras, with Villa-Lobos’s choral incarnation rather more atmospheric and evocative than that for strings.

Does it all work?

Almost entirely and due in no small part to the excellence of the São Paulo Symphonic Choir with its Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi. Lasting just under 60 minutes, the selection feels varied yet also cohesive enough to be enjoyed as a continuous programme, while enterprising choirs from both sides of the Atlantic ought to find much here to enrich their existing rosters. Inclusion of Villa-Lobos’s own music at the close is a reminder its technical demands should never be taken for granted, but here too the SPSC rises to the challenge with unstinting verve.

Is it recommended?

It is. The acoustic is just a little reverberant at times yet without detriment to the clarity of the choral writing, with informative annotations from Manoel Corrêa do Lago. Listeners should also investigate a recent Naxos release of Villa-Lobos’s first three violin sonatas (8.574310).

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Naxos website, and you can also purchase the recording here. You can read more about conductor Valentina Peleggi here

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

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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.

saariaho

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.

kirill_gerstein

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