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.

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

Playlist – The Rustle of Spring

Welcome to The Rustle of Spring.

This is a playlist designed to look at the positive, to anticipate our emergence from what has been an incredibly difficult winter for many.

Although we are not out of it yet nature is doing its best, with green shoots making themselves known, birds and animals starting to flex their muscles, the nights drawing out a bit and the weather – hopefully – improving.

This selection offers a range of responses to spring from classical composers. We have the outright optimism of Schumann’s Spring Symphony, his first, alongside more mysterious responses to the season from Lili Boulanger and John Foulds. Spring doesn’t have to mean orchestral music, either – there are intimate thoughts from the piano works of Grieg, Sinding and Tchaikovsky, while rarely heard choral pieces from Holst and Moeran lend an exotic air.

We finish with two very different portrayals of spring, in the form of one of Johann Strauss II’s best-known waltzes, Voices of Spring, and an all too rarely heard tone poem by Frank Bridge, Enter Spring. There isn’t even room for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons!

I hope you find something to enjoy.

Ben Hogwood

In concert – Steven Isserlis & Mishka Rushdie Momen @ Wigmore Hall

It must have been extremely special for Steven Isserlis to be playing the music of three of his favourite composers at the Wigmore Hall on this day – even more so as the date fell on the birthday of one of them, Robert Schumann.

He is one of the cellist’s greatest musical loves, and the sense persists that Isserlis is still discovering more things that make it so. One of Schumann’s many strengths is the versatility of his music, meaning pieces such as the 3 Romances Op.94, originally written for oboe and piano and given to his wife Clara as a Christmas present in 1849, can easily be performed with violin or, indeed, the cello.

Schumann’s birthday was marked by a performance of unaffected romantic beauty from Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, very much on an equal footing playing the composer’s first instrument. The pair caught the doleful and slightly inquiring nature of the first romance beautifully, while the surge of feeling in the central music of the second was a strong cumulative wave. The third, its theme given in a darker shade, was briefly introspective in its unison phrases but then more overtly passionate.

Before Schumann came another ‘birthday’ composer. Beethoven’s 250th is not likely to receive quite so much live coverage as it would have done in a year without a pandemic, but what it lacks in quantity it will surely make up for in quality. The Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major, the first of a pair published as the composer’s Op.5, is the ideal concert opener. It begins in slight trepidation of what it is about to discover, but then, on establishing what is effectively a new form of writing for the cello and piano together, throws itself headlong into the rapids.

The Allegro that comes after that first sense of discovery was joyous indeed, with lovely dialogue in play between the two protagonists. Isserlis smiled frequently, as though revelling in the combination of favourite music and venue once again, while Momen’s clear phrasing dovetailed neatly with the cello’s, owning some of the really tricky right hand runs with fearless accuracy.

The second movement had a terrific burst of energy, the sun breaking through at every possible opportunity when its catchy theme made several reappearances. The pair also gave a nice air of mystery when Beethoven suddenly departed from ‘home’ and ended up in a number of seemingly unrelated tonal centres, before reassuring us with the warmth of the home key once again.

As he introduced his favourite 20th century cello sonata, there was a sense of Isserlis’ heart almost bursting with the chance to play music live again. He described his discovery of Fauré’s late music as ‘being outside a door but then passing through and wondering why on earth I had been outside’, before the pair played the Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.108, the first of two such works from the Frenchman.

This was a very fine performance indeed, Isserlis and Momen watchful and urgent at the start, its music wracked with uncertainty but nonetheless pushing forward with great conviction. The Andante slow movement began lost in thought, the bell-like toll of the piano matched by Isserlis’ rich legato tone, before reaching heights of passion that the final movement also delivered, the performers now glorying in the major key and Fauré’s bursts of sunshine, the strong resolve of the first movement bringing its ultimate reward.

The pair finished with a profound account of Isserlis’ own transcription of a Bach chorale prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, in which – as the cellist noted – Bach says it all.

In concert – A week locked into Wigmore Hall

At 1pm on Monday June 1st, live music-making returned to the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3.

While we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy live streams of music from around the world since lockdown began, this felt like something extra special. A whole month of lunchtime concerts, served up by our finest chamber music venue in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. With a selection of top class artists, all of whom live close enough to journey in and play, all that was missing was the audience – but this added extra poignancy, offering us private moments with the musicians in our own home, a deluxe version of what BBC Radio 3 has been giving us for decades. A note should be made for presenter Andrew McGregor‘s broadcasting manner, expertly paced and perfectly weighted.

The musical riches in the first week have been many and varied. The first concert was ideally placed, Steven Hough giving us Busoni’s epic realisation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and Schumann’s lovelorn Fantasie in C major. In some performances of the Bach-Busoni the virtuoso elements of the piece take over at the expense of feeling, but not here. Hough shaped the phrases with great care, bringing out the gusto when it was needed but giving an incredibly well-balanced account of a familiar showpiece.

With Schumann’s Fantasie he gave a flowing performance of a notoriously difficult work, made all the more poignant because of its circumstances, written in isolation by a composer pining for his wife Clara. There was joy, too – the march theme of the second movement ringing out with bell-like clarity, while the resolution at the end, softly voiced, left a lasting smile.

Tuesday’s song recital from soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook had the themes of Hope and Longing – appropriately in the awful context of world events, which saw the concert begin with a two-minute period of reflection on racial inequality and violence.

Crowe began on high, judging her vibrato beautifully for Thomas Arne’s aria O ravishing delight, before three Schumann songs found her vocal control matched by her communication with the audience, in spite of the empty hall. The sound world of Berg’s 7 frühe Lieder is very different, with challenges of tricky melodic intervals and words by seven different poets, but the soprano handled them effortlessly, helped by Tilbrook’s painterly application of light and shade for the corners of Berg’s nocturnal settings.

The pair moved on to a selection of poignant folk songs, none more so than the unaccompanied She moved through the fair, before English lyrics old and new from Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Madeline Dring. It was a touching recital with both soprano and pianist clearly on the same page.

Few guitarists would expect to receive compliments on the quality of their quiet playing…but that was what stood out immediately from Sean Shibe’s solo recital on the Wednesday. With a collection of attractive Scottish dances the listener was drawn in from the start and borne to the beauty of the Highlands, the tunes carrying on the air in performances of extraordinary intimacy.

The same could be said for Shibe’s performance of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, carefully studied but delighting in the expressive interplay between the parts, bringing Bach’s notes clean off the page. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was even better, Shibe moving to a Fender to play the 12th part of this multilayered composition. The waves of sound echoing around the Wigmore as the guitarist, now barefoot, completely lost himself in the music.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist Julius Drake, both Wigmore regulars and musical partners for 40+ years, crammed their Thursday lunchtime with music old and new, all of personal significance.

They included two short premieres, the wide open textures of Huw Watkins’ haunting Arietta and the uncertainties of Michael Berkeley’s A Dark Waltz, written in lockdown. There was a rarity,too, in the first broadcast performance of Liszt’s darkly coloured Élegie, originally written for cello and piano but here in a recently unearthed version with for cor anglais.

Howard Ferguson’s arrangement for oboe and piano of Finzi’s substantial Interlude was beautifully paced and deeply felt in that slightly elusive way in which the composer writes, Drake absorbing the extra parts with ease. Meanwhile Ferguson’s arrangements of three pieces for pedal piano by Schumann studies were also nicely done. Later we heard three attractive shorter pieces from Madeline Dring, and finally Nicholas Daniel showed off the oboe’s versatility in three rewarding arrangements of popular songs, including The Girl From Ipanema and capped by All The Things You Are. A note, too, for the pair’s deeply felt and beautifully observed Bach encore, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, prefaced by a sensitive introduction.

Last but not least, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy reminded us what an intimate form of communication the piano duet can be. As the pair live together they have experienced isolation in each other’s company, and that in itself brought an extra poignancy to their lovingly played selection of BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes, a profound Schubert Impromptu in A flat from Tsoy and a bittersweet clutch of six Waltzes, Ländler & German Dances from Kolesnikov.

Together the pair enjoyed the humour and lightness of touch in Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein, but the best was saved for last and a wonderful performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor. Recognised as one of the finest works in the piano duet repertoire, it received a performance led by Tsoy that moved from almost painful introspection to passionate outbursts five minutes later. The scherzo section had plenty of cut and thrust, while the whole piece, ideally paced, built to an almost overwhelming strength of feeling, capped by an intensely dramatic pause before the softly voiced opening theme returned.

What a musical week it has been – and looking at the roll call it looks like we are in for another three weeks of equally fine and moving insights. You can catch up with all the concerts on the links above and are strongly advised to do so, for there are some incredibly fine performances waiting to be heard. Live concerts may not be with us for a while yet, but in the meantime these intimate hours with some of our best classical music artists are an ideal substitute.

You can see the schedule for forthcoming Wigmore Hall livestreams here, the series resuming courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen on Monday 8 June.

Sound of Mind 10 – Sounds of Spring

If you’ve been indoors for over a week now, the chances are you’ll be climbing the walls!

Happily there are reasons to be cheerful just around the corner – not least the imminent arrival of spring.

Classical music composers have always taken to spring in their music, from Vivaldi through to Stravinsky. This playlist celebrates their portrayals of the season, through works including Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Schumann‘s Spring Symphony, Beethoven, Sibelius and finally Britten.

Have a listen and harness the positive energy our composers can provide!

 

Ben Hogwood