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.

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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

Proms premiere – Luca Francesconi: Duende

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Luca Francesconi

Leila Josefowicz (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (Prom 13)

Duration: 20 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02wv00w/bbc-proms-2015-season-luca-francesconi-duende-the-dark-notes

What’s the story behind the piece?

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Leila Josefowicz playing Duende Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

“Historically”,– says Luca Francesconi, “duende is the demon of flamenco. As Federico Garcìa Lorca explains, it is a subterranean force of unheard-of power that escapes rational control. To recover a primitive force in the instrument that perhaps most embodies the history of the West it is necessary to make a perilous descent into the underworld of dark notes, or a flight beyond the orbit of the earth. Which amounts to the same thing. Extremely difficult. But without duende we remain bolted to the ground.”

The work, for violin and orchestra, is a joint commission from the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Leila Josefowicz, the violin soloist, has expanded on ‘duende’. “We acknowledged that we both have Duende, which cannot be learned…this is something we knew we could share with the world, he with his composition and me being the interpreter and musical messenger. I appreciate his incredible musical imagination, his scores bursting with colour and drama”.

Did you know?

Francesconi, born in 1956, has studied with both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. His chamber opera Quartett, about the end of the world, was heard at the Royal Opera House in 2014.

Initial verdict

This is a striking piece, right from the start, where the violin begins with some feather light string crossing at a very high pitch, seemingly evoking night time insects or other sounds. There are some incredibly taxing passages for the instrument early on, which Josefowicz is completely equal to.

There is some frenetic activity both from violin and orchestra, but at around 7 minutes in the violin really soars, making a rather beautiful sound easily audible even above the glinting, treble-heavy accompaniment.

Around 13’10” there is a notable gear change, the violin digging in for some seriously virtuosic and demonic passages. Then at around 17” a slow, nocturnal atmosphere asserts itself, with various whistles and clicks from the violin to long-held notes from the orchestra.

I found it a little more difficult to hold attention with the piece in the closing stages, but it is doubtful that is the fault of the composer. A second hearing will confirm!

Second hearing

tbc!

Where can I hear more?

You can watch a performance of the Piano Concerto no.2, completed in 2013, below: