Thursday 28 March 2024

Without a shadow of doubt, a brilliant programme all round: Sibelius, Prokofiev & Saariaho in Berlin with Jan Lisiecki, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin & Tarmo Peltokoski

Jan Lisiecki (Photo: Christoph Köstlin/Deutsche Grammophon)
Jan Lisiecki (Photo: Christoph Köstlin/Deutsche Grammophon)

Kaija Saariaho: Ciel d’hiver (Winter sky), Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; Jan Lisiecki, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, cond. Tarmo Peltokoski; Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by Tony Cooper, 23 March 2024

Helsinki-born composer, Kaija Anneli Saariaho’s Ciel d’hiver made a great contribution to Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester’s concert at the Philharmonie, Berlin

Whilst taking a break from Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Ring cycle at Staatsoper Berlin [see Tony's review], I took in a concert by Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conductor Tarmo Peltokoski, at the Philharmonie in a well-planned programme comprising Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor with soloist Jan Lisiecki, Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite and a piece by the Helsinki-born composer, Kaija Saariaho, entitled Ciel d’hiver (Winter sky).

In fact, the concert opened with Ciel d’hiver. And being not too familiar with Saariaho’s music, I soon discovered that she was a prolific and futuristic writer who penned a trio of compositions employing ‘live’ electronics: Ververdungen, an interplay between orchestra and tape, came in 1984 followed by Du Cristal 1989 and …à la Fumée a year later, thereby proudly stamping her credentials on the Finnish contemporary music scene.

She also came under the influence of the ‘Spectralists’, a French group of composers whose compositions are based on the computer analysis of the sound spectrum of individual tones on various instruments. Therefore, she turned to a style characterised by long-held bass notes and the use of microtonal intervals and writing. And in this particular and distinctive style, she composed what’s widely recognised as her best-known work: Graal théâtre for violin and orchestra (1994-97).

In millennium year, Saariaho (who, sadly, passed away in Paris, June of last year, aged 70) turned to opera and Kent Nagano (a champion of her work) conducted the première of L’amour de loin (Love from a distance) at the 2000 Salzburg Festival. A five-act opera written to a libretto by Amin Maalouf and based on the biography of troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, entitled La vida breve. The opera was recorded by Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Rundfunkchor Berlin in 2011 under the direction of Kent Nagano and awarded the Grammy Award in the ‘Best Opera Recording’ category.

A further opera came along in 2006 with Adriana Mater, the première taking place in Paris at Opéra Bastille and in the same year her oratorio, La passion de Simone, surrounding the life of Simone Weil, received its première in Vienna.

A one-person opera, Émilie, written to a libretto by Amin Maalouf, premièred in Lyon in 2010 was conducted by Kazushi Ōno and in 1999, Kurt Masur favoured Saariaho by conducting her composition Oltra mar for choir and orchestra with the New York Philharmonic.

From my standpoint, though, she’s relatively unknown but her works speak volumes having been performed all over the show: London (1989), Jakarta (1989), Paris (1989, 1991), Vienna (1993) and, of course, the Salzburg Festival in millennium year.

A 15-minute piece, Ciel d’hiver happens to be an arrangement of the second movement of her 2003 symphonic work, Orion, commissioned by Musique Nouvelle en Liberté in 2002 and premièred at Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris in 2014 by Orchestre Lamoureux conducted by Fayçal Karoui.

Therefore, if Benjamin Britten vividly captures the ‘undertow’ of a stormy and unsettled sea of the shingly coastal landscape of Suffolk in the ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, Kaija Saariaho duly captures the true essence of a cold and bitter Finnish winter landscape in Ciel d’hiver.

A thought-provoking work depicting (and capturing) the elements of wind and rain and a cold, barren, windswept landscape so associated with Finland and its Scandinavian neighbours were all so evident in Saariaho’s writing. The opening bars, for instance, pinpoints a solo piccolo engaging in dialogue with the first violin before a full rounded softly-played orchestral sound chillingly breaks forth heralding the awakening of a new dawn.

If Britten used harps well in ‘Sea Interludes’, Saariaho does likewise in Ciel d’hiver. They have a big say in the matter from beginning to end while erratic brass passages bubble away throughout the work in the background with woodwind summing up screeching wind patterns and timpani softly hinting that thunderous clouds are gathering. As the work draws slowly to a close practically inaudible high-pitch runs are floating from the harps thereby offering a period of peace and tranquillity to a typical wintry and blustery Finnish day.

In fact, what I shall fondly remember and take away from this enthralling (and thrilling) concert by DSO is Saariaho’s Ciel d’hiver, a composer I immediately took to and a work I need to hear again.

At the première of Prokofiev’s four-movement Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor in 1913, the composer acted as soloist. It seems that most members of the audience received the work in a favourable light but some gave it the thumbs down. The modernistic writing was far too hurtful for their so sensitive ears. A familiar complaint even today. How boring!

One member of the audience ignorantly said that ‘cats on the roof could make better music’. Be that as it may, the work survived such absurd claptrap as this and, thankfully, became standard fare in most orchestra’s repertoires.

Of this very difficult work, Prokofiev’s biographer, David Nice, wrote in 2011: ‘A decade ago I’d have bet you there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly. Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Kissin delayed learning it and Prokofiev had got into a terrible mess trying to perform it with Ansermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s.’

Such is history! But there was no such problem with the soloist on this occasion the bright, intelligent and forthright 28-year-old Canadian-born pianist, Jan Lisiecki. A child prodigy, he made his orchestral début at the age of 9 and on reaching 13 was invited to the 2008 edition of the ‘Chopin and his Europe’ festival in Warsaw. He selected to play Chopin's Piano Concerto No.2 with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Howard Shelley. Lisiecki’s performance was well received.

And his performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto at the Philharmonie was well received, too. He was simply dazzling at the keyboard delivering a technically-assured and flamboyant performance. Interestingly, the first and last movements constitute some of the most dramatic writing in all of Prokofiev’s piano concertos both containing long and developed cadenzas.

The first movement’s cadenza alone takes up almost the entire last half of the movement. And it was in this cadenza that Lisiecki showed his strength, mettle and expertise of his chosen instrument by delivering an excellent and exciting account of such a notoriously taxing cadenza, one the hardest to be found in the classical piano repertoire.

The audience erupted when he took his final bow and wanted more - they got more! His farewell piece (a fast and furious improvisation on something or other!) lasted about 90 seconds. After a big smile to the audience, he was off to a big round of rapturous applause.

The cycle of four tone poems from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala (a symbol of national identity for the oppressed Finns helping them gain independence from Russia in 1917) make up Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends of Kalevala) comprising ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island’, ‘The Swan of Tuonela’, ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’, ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’.

The work received its première in 1896 in Helsinki (then part of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland) performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by the composer but was originally conceived as Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat), an opera harbouring a mythological setting following the exploits of the heroic character, Lemminkäinen.

A young, high-spirited, jovial naïve-type character, Lemminkäinen finds himself in so many troublesome and complicated situations of his own making especially in ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island’ (the first tone poem) witnessing the protagonist having the time of his life seducing young girls of the island before fleeing as their menfolk return from the field.

In fact, the movement’s widely known as ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari’ as the word ‘saari’ is Finnish for ‘island’. Here one finds the story telling of joy and fulfilment with the orchestra flying through the score at a rate of knots as much as Lemminkäinen seems to be flying though life at a rate of knots enjoying leisurely time with those lovely (and it seems) friendly island girls.

However, the most popular of the four pieces: ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ is developed from The Building of the Boat overture at a time when Sibelius fell under the spell of Wagner. It offers a well-known and well-loved cor anglais solo played over shimmering strings echoing a similar type of passage found in act 3 of Tristan and Isolde. In fact, the mood of the piece reflects to some degree or other the overture to Lohengrin.

Often performed as a separately entity, the score for ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ paints a fascinating abstract picture of a mystical sacred swan on the river Tuonela (Finnish version of the river Styx) which Lemminkäinen has been tasked in killing but in his quest of doing so he’s killed by a poisoned arrow.

Come the third story ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ one finds the traveller in the ‘Land of the Dead’ in readiness to shoot the sacred swan to win the hand of the daughter of Louhi, mistress of the Pohjola (Northland). In his quest, though, he’s ambushed and killed by the son of the Lord of Tuonela who dismembers his corpse into eight pieces and then tosses them into the Tuonela. However, his mother comes to his rescue and by engaging in the ‘black arts’ restores him back to life.

And reflecting on the overall mood of this dark and morbid piece, the bass strings and horns of DSO came into their own and were heard to good effect in the opening bars interrupted by a handful of impromptu-type notes emanating from the bass trombones before full orchestra entered the fray blowing up a storm as befitting the fiery subject-matter of the tone poem itself.

Pining for his homeland, the eponymous hero drifts back there in ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ completely exhausted following an adventurous voyage that was rich, strong and precarious in every conceivable way. When he finally reaches his destination, he truly rediscovers and wallows in nostalgia about his homeland that harbour so many fond and rich childhood memories.

In this piece, strings were flowing, timpani were having the time of their lives and woodwind were screaming high and then with a striking clash of cymbals it brought this movement (and the end of the work) to a bruising and dramatic close.

Without a shadow of doubt, a brilliant programme all round performed, indeed, by a brilliant orchestra conducted by 23-year-old Tarmo Peltokoski who has Finnish ancestry on his father’s side and Filipino on his mother’s. He’s a conductor certainly going places, one destination - Toulouse, France.

In September 2022, Peltokoski first guest conducted there the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse returning for a further appearance only a month later. Now he finds himself the orchestra’s new music director. Bonne chance!

I must say, too, that Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is in safe hands under the direction of Robin Ticciati. He has been at the crease since 2017 and since 2014 is enjoying a good innings as music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. The orchestra certainly ticks my box standing fair and square against its mighty neighbour, the Berlin Philharmonic. I’ve heard DSO on many occasions at the Philharmonie, the last couple of times in 2018 and 2019. Therefore, it was nice to pick up on them again after ‘you know what’. Bravo!

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