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Helsinki Festival Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, Christian Tetzlaff (violin) Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, 5th September, 2004 (BK)

 

Magnus Lindberg, Chorale
Berg, Violin Concerto, To the Memory of an Angel

Mahler, Symphony No. 7 in E minor

 

 

A structural theme to this concert was provided by the chorale ‘Es ist genug’ borrowed from Johann Rudolf Ahle by Bach and used in his cantata, ‘O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort.’ The melody appears in both the Berg concerto and the Mahler symphony and is also used as a building block for Magnus Lindberg’s 2002 piece appropriately called Chorale.

 

While Lindberg has used references to music by other composers many times in his earlier works, this is his first piece in which another composer’s music is given a central role. Chorale is scored for winds and strings only and the old melody appears in it constantly, sometimes in a veiled fashion and at other times more clearly. Thus the melody plays a more prominent and independent role than is usual in Lindberg’s music. The music is dense, harmonically diverse and manages a distinctive developmental quality throughout even though it never loses its essential chorale-like quality. The form may actually be something of a limitation however, for by the end of the piece there is a sense that it could develop even further if the structure were abandoned for something less restricting. Somehow in this work, the kaleidoscopic colours and furious intensity typical of the composer that MB mentions in his 2000 interview with him are never quite present, or at least are not as noticeable as they usually are. While the music is never less than engaging, it does leave a something of a sense that it is not completely finished, as if somehow it is a work still in progress. Which of course, it could be.

 

Having changed seats from where I was on September 2nd it was something of a relief to hear Christian Tetzlaff’s performance of the Berg Concerto clearly. As in the New York performance reviewed by BH in May of this year Mr. Tetzlaff followed up the concerto with an encore from Bach, the same Largo from the Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Major BWV 1005, played once again with a simple concentrated intensity that complemented the Berg perfectly.

 

It is certainly true that Tetzlaff approaches the Berg concerto with a cool and rarified tone but it is equally true that his is a carefully studied interpretation about Manon Gropius and the sadness of her loss. And how effective this approach is, particularly in a setting like Finland where a hint of winter fastness is already in the air, even in early autumn.

 

Tetzlaff clearly loves this music and is in sympathy with Berg and his sorrow. This much was obvious. As the concerto progressed the soloist moved gently once again from a spare initial sound to something more intense and quietly rhapsodic. His playing really does have a quality that is properly described as spiritual: it evokes limitless space and a brooding yet calm eternity that seems to lie at the boundary between this world and another. There may be sorrow here, his playing suggests, but there is also reconciliation, even joy if we know how to seek it.

 

The Helsinki Philharmonic is the oldest Nordic orchestra still in operation. It was founded by Robert Kajanus in 1882 and premiered all the Sibelius symphonies except the seventh. Esa-Pekka Salonen first conducted the orchestra in 1979 when he was 21 and has returned to it regularly ever since. After the Mahler symphony, the orchestra spontaneously played a fanfare for him. They were impressed by his direction and so was the audience.

 

And so they should have been, because Mahler’s Seventh is difficult to bring off, lasting as it does for eighty minutes. Many find it taxing since it has an unsatisfactory conclusion, lacks the familiarity of the Second and Eighth or the ready accessibility of the Fourth. It also has cowbells, mandolin and guitar of course.

 

This was a powerful reading however. The funeral march rhythm that opens the work was slow but full of detail. The development was careful and led naturally to a recapitulation full of tension and interest. Both of the Nachtmusik movements were also done well, the first one containing fine horn playing and the second being appropriately disturbing. The scherzo had the orchestra enjoying the sounds that Mahler calls from all sections and the ambiguous rondo finale (which might be either joyful or an essay in cynical irony) brought the work to a hugely noisy conclusion. It was hard to say whether the audience enjoyed the symphony for own sake or simply admired Salonen’s direction and the orchestra’s responsiveness to him. Either way it was a success for Salonen, though I overheard someone saying that the cowbells were ‘just silly.’

 

Bill Kenny

 

 

 

 



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