Kaija Saariaho’s new work for organ and orchestra, Maan vargot (Earth’s Shadows) is dedicated to the memory of Henri Dutilleux, the first performance having been given in Montreal last May. Oliver Latry was also the soloist then, and the composer has acknowledged the help and inspiration he provided during the course of the composition. Saariaho is at pains to stress that Maan vargot is not an organ concerto, but a “fruitful and inspiring partnership, in which two strong but civilized personalities [organ and orchestra] can co-exist without having to fight too much for a place in the sun.”
Saariaho has spent much of her time over the last 30 or so years in Paris, and it doesn’t seem too fanciful to find the influence of the great French organ composers in this piece, especially Messiaen, though it has not been acknowledged by her. Maan vargot is in three unnamed movements and scored for a large orchestra. Textures are intriguingly and imaginatively varied, the organ, with its almost orchestral resources, playing its part in this and only occasionally dominating proceedings. Much of the material is fragmentary, but there are shapes of a kind and dynamic and colour contrasts to stimulate the listener, though it is not an easy work to penetrate in one hearing.
Lisa Batiashvili than gave a very satisfying account of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Her playing was quite intense, and she took expression to the point of making fairly marked fluctuations of phrase and paragraph. Her tone quality was attractive, though occasionally her intonation faltered for a moment or two. Esa-Pekka Salonen was a highly supportive conductor, and his imaginative direction and the superb playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra contributed greatly to the performance. As an encore Batiashvili played a version of a folksong, ‘Droning and Moaning Wide Dnepr River’, by Igor Loboda, for the people of Ukraine.
The same high quality of music-making was maintained after the interval. Salonen must have conducted Sibelius’s Second Symphony on innumerable occasions, but his response to the score seemed very fresh and even had a spontaneous, improvisational quality. He certainly encouraged the brass to play out, especially in the finale, and though this occasionally resulted in a brash quality of sound, it was certainly very arresting. In the third (Vivacissimo) movement Salonen’s tempo was a bit too hectic, though the orchestra coped imperturbably, and in the finale he built up the tension towards the final climax very cunningly, so that the big tune seemed even more triumphant than usual.