Saariaho: Maan varjot (UK premiere)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2
Olivier Latry (organ)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Royal Festival Hall, 16 June 2014
Esa-Pekka Salonen hasn’t conducted much Sibelius in London. But given he’s (among many other things) a Finnish music specialist, audiences here could well have anticipated that he’d demonstrate a mastery of the music. This evening he did exactly that, showing not only that he’s learned well from his many Finnish predecessors, but that he also has his own distinctive vision.
The Violin Concerto and Second Symphony were presented in an all-Finnish programme that began with the UK premiere of a new work by Kaija Saariaho, Maan varjot, a co-commission with three other orchestras that was given its first performance in Montreal at the end of last month. Its presentation here marked one of the final stages of the “Pull Out all the Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the RFH organ. True to form, Saariaho avoided the idea of the guest instrument being a concertante soloist, and the relationship between organ and orchestra was complex throughout. The score is filled with her trademark subtleties and complexities, the textures often involving all or most of the orchestra, but rarely loud. Tremolos or complex woven lines in the middle voices, the violas for example or the woodwinds, create a subtly textured bed upon which to rest longer lines in the upper and lower voices. The organ occasionally rises to a position of dominance, but more often supports the orchestral textures with inscrutable, complex harmonies in the upper register or pulsing bass notes from the pedals. The work is structured in three movements, the character of which suggest, at least tangentially, a concerto format. The slow second movement gave Saariaho the opportunity to explore more intimate relationships between sections of the orchestra and corresponding registrations in the organ. The last movement begins with a toccata flourish from the organ, but that’s Saariaho’s single concession to triumphalism, and the music soon returns to her more muted and complex textures. The piece was played well, by orchestra and soloist alike. The composer seemingly had little interest in showcasing the talents of the celebrity organist for whom it was written, Olivier Latry, or even the capabilities of the newly-restored organ, a shame on both counts. Still, this was a great demonstration of the benefits that the newly restored organ will bring to concert life here, making performances like this possible, and without stealing the show.
In the event, the show belonged to Lisa Batiashvili, whose Sibelius Violin Concerto was one of the standout performances of the season. Her casual mastery of what is considered by many the most difficult concerto in the repertoire seemed to be a given from the very first notes. But the style, poise, elegance, and carefully regulated drama she brought to the work put her into another league. Batiashvili has an utterly distinctive tone, which she maintains through even the knottiest of passagework. It is complex and warm, slightly nasal and in some ways introverted. But it’s very elegant and it has a singing quality to it. The only quality it lacks is the grand, strident character that Sibelius sometimes demands, especially in the finale. A constructive tension quickly emerged in this performance between soloist and conductor; Salonen gave a more opulent and symphonic reading, while Batiashvili maintained a more intimate tone. But it worked well. There were never any balance problems, and the orchestra’s responsiveness to the soloist held the performance together, even when their expressive aims diverged. Batiashvili’s understated mastery really came into its own in the last pages, where the music gets more and more flamboyant in its virtuosity, and yet she continually refuses to break her controlled demeanour. The crowd went wild, and rightly so, this was a very special performance.
It was followed by a short encore, a recent arrangement of a Ukrainian folksong by a Georgian composer (I didn’t catch the name), part of a work he describes as Requiem for Ukraine. Again, Batiashvili used her calm, focussed stage presence to impressively powerful effect, this time for more political ends. The political influence exerted by classical musicians is an issue of seemingly endless debate, but Batishvili demonstrated here that making your point with no great fuss or fanfare, using the direct line of communication that your talent permits, has far greater power and resonance than some of the more gratuitous stunts we have recently seen from other performers.
The Sebelius Second got a revisionist reading in some ways from Salonen, yet not to the point of antagonising more traditional tastes. Phrasing was often clipped, tempos were always provisional, and clarity of texture always took precedence over atmosphere. Yet, despite all this micromanagement, the bigger picture was never compromised, and the playing was suitably expansive when required. The orchestra was on top form, especially the strings, with all those pizzicatos in the cellos and basses given with absolute precision. Given that the concert opened with what must have been a very difficult new work, it was impressive that Salonen also found the time to rehearse, and rehearse well, the more familiar symphony. Once or twice his approach seemed a little too constricted. The build-up into the finale for example wasn’t so much a process of tension and release as just a carefully graded crescendo. But it was clear that Salonen always knew what he was doing. It turned out the reason he had underplayed that particular passage was so as not to pre-empt the similarly dramatic lead into the coda. And the ending was just magnificent. Like Batiashvili at the end of the concerto, Salonen gave us understated power here, with plenty of volume from the orchestra, but plenty of detail too. In the end, it turned out that Salonen had provided all the qualities that make a Sibelius performance great, the grandeur, the majesty, the expressive focus, but he’s done it in a distinctive way that was all his own.