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Sibelius Triumphant

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/09/2023 -  
Jean Sibelius: Lemminkäinen’s Return, Opus 22 No. 4 – Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 43
Kaija Saariaho: Aile du songe

Claire Chase (Flute)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (Conductor)

S. Mälkki/J. Sibelius

Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public cold spring water.”
Jean Sibelius

My music is not a working‑out of abstract processes but an urgent communication from composer to listener of ideas, images, and emotions... the visual and the musical world are one to me... Different senses, shades of colour, or textures and tones of light, even fragrances and sounds blend in my mind. They form a complete world in itself.
Kaija Saariaho

While Finland is not actually one of the “Nordic countries”, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) prides itself as being the “oldest symphony orchestra” of that grouping. And nobody hearing them last night, under their longtime conductor Susanna Mälkki would question their status.

Several decades ago, I heard them do a week of Sibelius symphonies in Hong Kong, and remember being attracted by their transparency, their clarity and even the glorious “authentic sound” of their great composer. Last night, Ms. Mälkki played the Second Symphony with a singular Grand Romantic grandeur, and even some idiosyncratic quirks.

Was this the same Second Symphony premiered and conducted by the composer himself in 1902? No recordings exist. Yet the HPO is as linked to Sibelius as the Vienna Philharmonic with Brahms or the Dresden Phil with Richard Strauss. So listening to this orchestra last night was undoubtedly close to authentic.

Not that Ms. Mälkki needed this relationship. As dynamic in her movements as in her results, she played the Sibelius with grandeur and the utmost intensity. What could seem like Tchaikovsky style “filling” with even the finest conductors turned into meaning. What could verge on bombastic climaxes here seemed inevitable.

The first movement had an almost Mahlerian haunting start. (And how absurd the famous conversation between the two, showing their contrasting philosophies: both were masters structure and orchestration.) The scherzo was conducted with Satanic fury. And the finale? No splendid conductors can fail when minor turns to major, and Ms. Mälkki took it right.

The second movement Andante was unique, and initially off‑putting. This wasn’t “moving” at all, but with an Adagio pacing. More than that, the Sibelian breaths were turned into breathtaking pauses, allowing a tension, a sense of suspense.

This with the opening of the Finnish Heracles–Lemminkäinen’s Return–produced good early Sibelius. One would have wished Ms. Mälkki were playing more of the mature Sibelius with the HPO. But this, alas, is her final season.

C. Chase/K. Saariaho (© Carrie Schneider)

Of course Finland is hardly a one‑composer country. Where Sibelius has his Central European forebears, Kaija Saariaho is in a world–a cosmos, a universe–of her own. Finland is her birthplace, Paris her home, but Aile du songe (Concerto for Flute and Orchestra) transcended place and time.

The great Claire Chase was soloist for almost every measure of the 18‑minute piece. But so gorgeous her ordinary tone (I keep thinking of Mozart’s glass harmonica) and so effortless the flautist-tricks, that not a measure was lacking interest.

She was the star, fluttering, twisting her notes, soaring, as the personification of the poetry which inspired the work. But what an ensemble she had behind her! No brass, no woodwind–but a percussion group of 22 different instruments

Did this make for a slam‑bang noise behind Ms. Chase? Quite the opposite. The crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, xylophone, bells etc etc etc were as hushed as could be. Instead of a Manet painting, theirs was a Pointillistic background. A mystical partnership with Ms. Chase.

One absolutely horrible moment last night. After the grand triumph of the Second Symphony, I was ready to go home and allow the music to stay with me. On second thought I remained, hoping for an even more triumphal encore.

Alas, Ms. Mälkki , in a moment of bad taste, covered the Sibelius finale with the worst of Sibelius’ early period, his lugubrious wearing Valse triste. Heard as an orchestral lollipop, that music was tolerable. After such a great Second Symphony, it was apologizing to the audience, “Sorry for raising your emotions so high. Here’s a salon piece so you can go home with equanimity and placidity.”

A Magnificent Hail and a Mild Farewell.

Harry Rolnick



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