Wednesday 2 July 2014

The last of the first: Saariaho's ‘Earth's Shadows’ at the Royal Festival Hall

Kaija Saariaho Picture credit: Priska Ketterer
Kaija Saariaho Picture credit: Priska Ketterer
Saariaho, Sibelius: Latry, Batiashvili, Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 26 2014
Star rating: 5.0

All Finnish evening, with Saariaho premiere celebrating the RFH organ, plus Sibelius

The magnificent, newly refurbished, organ at the Royal Festival Hall was the centrepiece for an all-Finnish programme on Thursday 26 June 2014. The last of 'Pull out all the stops' a series of concerts featuring commissions designed to show off and celebrate the organ, the concert included the UK premiere of 'Maan varjot' (Earth's Shadows) for organ and orchestra by Kaija Saariaho (1952-), performed by Olivier Latry with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, alongside Jean Sibelius's (1865-1957) Violin Concerto, starring Lisa Batiashvili on violin, and his Symphony No.2.

The Royal Festival Hall's organ designed by Ralph Downes CBE KSG, and built by Harrison & Harrison, was first installed in 1954 as the focal point of Sir Leslie Martin's concert auditorium. As William McVicker, Organ Curator at the Royal Festival Hall explained during a preconcert talk, “Ralph Downes put the organ centre stage” so that it could “speak clearly” and “not from the wings”.

However during refurbishment of the hall in 2005 the organ was removed and only a third replaced when the hall reopened in 2007. This sadly meant that much of the organ repertoire was no longer playable. In 2010 the 'Pull out all the stops' campaign was launched to raise enough money to restore the organ to its former 7,866-pipe glory. With funding from the National Lottery and more than £1.3 million in individual donations, repairs began in 2012 and were completed earlier this year.

Olivier Latry
Olivier Latry
Tonight's Finnish extravaganza began with 'Earth's Shadows', a new composition and UK premiere by Saariaho. Saariaho was insistent that she did not want to write an organ concerto – rather she wanted to explore the sound possibilities of the organ as a member of the orchestra. A great deal of co-operation from French organist Latry was required to get exactly the sounds Saariaho had in mind. Saariaho said that it was only possible because of the “refinement of Olivier's ears”.

But together they managed to slide the organ colours into the orchestra - at times the transition from instrument to organ or back was almost imperceptible. Another organ sound used was some very low bass notes that the hall could not properly hold. Consequently these notes become beat, as the transmitted and reflected sound waves interfered, producing a deep whoomf whoomf effect.

The title of the work comes from Percy Shelley's (1792-1822) ode to Keats, 'Adonaïs' (1821) and reflects Saariaho's dedication of the work to Henri Dutilleux who died last year at the age of 97. The second movement, which encapsulated Saariaho's feelings about Dutilleux, was a conversation between the organ and orchestra. Futuristic/ spaceage overtones shimmered as the theme was passed around.

The first and third movements employed a lot of the sound shifting described above. In the first movement the organ set up ideas which were then repeated and varied by the orchestra. The effect was all landscape with ice and lakes and bird calls. The third movement was more vigorous with motifs fracturing into component sounds. Somewhere in there was the ghost of a folk tune. But the organ never overpowered the orchestra in fact the very last note was first intoned on a piccolo and then continued by the organ with no change in sound quality.

Sibelius, also Finnish, was very influential in 20th century European music, especially in the use of symphonic form, including composers such as Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax. The 'Second Symphony' played tonight encapsulated this musical idea but, with hints of Scandinavian modal folk music, also became associated in the minds of Finnish people with resistance and liberation from Russia.

Lisa Batiashvili
Lisa Batiashvili
However his first love was the violin and he wanted to become a world-class violinist. His 'Violin concerto' written in 1905 and performed by Batiashvili shows that obsession in a clear understanding of the capabilities and sound world of the violin.

Batiashvili tripped her way through the changes in tone from folk to romantic, and effortlessly played the airy cadenzas and furiously fast third movement. Salonen kept the orchestra bubbling along, making full use of dynamics without overwhelming the violin. The more I hear Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra play Sibelius, the more I appreciate their interpretation and skill. This concerto was outstanding.

Batiashvili's encore was a work composed by Igor Loboda, based on the Ukrainian folk song 'Groaning and moaning the wide river Dnepr'. This was an emotional self accompanied work with an almost continuous drone. You can find a blurry recording on Batiashvili's Facebook page and with the Philharmonie Berlin on YouTube.

Although the 'Pull out all the stops' festival has now finished, it is not the end of the story for the organ. In order to maintain it, and to continue commissioning new works, the Royal Festival Hall is looking for people to 'sponsor a pipe' - from 1 to 32 feet long. Donate enough and you will get a personal tour of the organ by William McVicker.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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