Perhaps the most memorable part of this evening was the palpable sense of joy that was radiating from the stage.
Readers of my reviews from Susanna Mälkki’s recent concerts with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) have probably noticed that I have not I been shy in my praise of her performances.
Before getting into the details, I will say right now that this evening’s concert, Mälkki’s first as Music Director of the HPO, was easily one of the best concerts I have ever seen.
When Alan Gilbert began his tenure as Music Director of the NY Philharmonic, he raised some eyebrows in the musical world by beginning the program with a Magnus Lindberg world premiere followed by a Messiaen song cycle. It was, in effect, a statement on the direction he planned to take his orchestra.
I think it would be safe to say that Mälkki took this kind of statement a step further.
To open her tenure with the HPO, Mälkki chose a program of entirely 20th/21st century fare (admittedly, two works were written in the first decade of the 20th century), which was extraordinary in its diversity of composers, styles, and eras.
The first work on the program was Ligeti’s Atmosphères, which featured some incredibly hushed pianissimo playing, bordering on the edge of audibility. Mälkki also relished in Ligeti’s display of extraordinary orchestral alchemy.
Following the Ligeti came the first Ravel work on the program, Shéhérazade. Mälkki brought a tremendous transparency to the work’s hazy and perfumed textures. The first movement climax was polished to the finest instrumental detail. Particularly memorable was the meltingly beautiful playing of the HPO strings, especially in the outer movements …
After the intermission, Saariaho’s Asteroid 4179: Toutatis, Sibelius’ Canzonetta (arr. Stravinsky), and Lindberg’s Parada were performed in sequence without a break. Under Mälkki’s direction Saariaho’s music was both mystical and imposing; the central climax was tight and astringent, almost terrifyingly so. Sibelius’ charming Canzonetta acted as a palate cleanser before moving directly (perhaps somewhat jarringly) to Lindberg’s Parada. Nevertheless, Mälkki worked her podium magic with this densely packed score, bringing crystal clarity to the piece’s playful rhythms and vigorous brass and percussion writing.
Closing out the program was the Ravel roof-raiser La Valse. Not surprisingly, this performance was a display of precision and clarity. Mälkki whipped up a delirious frenzy in the work’s closing moments, but still managed to give the final chords a lucidity often absent from performances of this work.
While there were numerous individual highlights throughout the evening, equally impressive was the versatility that both Mälkki and the orchestra brought to this highly varied collection of works … perhaps the most memorable part of this evening was the palpable sense of joy that was radiating from the stage. We cannot wait to hear and see more. Bravo.