Susanna Mälkki made her LSO debut last March, standing in for Valery Gergiev in Brahms and Richard Strauss, but this bill of fare more obviously played to her strengths as a new-music champion, a cellist and a Finn. The stalls were reassuringly full given that the Music Director of the Helsinki Philharmonic enjoys a lower profile in the UK than in the US where her career has taken off in a big way. Having given a similar programme in Valencia the previous day, the playing was, at the very least, uncommonly well-scrubbed and mostly more than that.
A firm believer that “we don’t play and listen to difficult music out of a sense of duty, but because it reflects the difficulties of the world we live in”, Mälkki will have been unfazed by the understated idiom of Revealing, a shadowy five-minute processional from French-Canadian Patrick Giguère. The conductor was music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain from 2006 to 2013 but the composer, born in 1987, draws little from that Parisian Petri dish of formal experimentation. Indeed his music doesn’t sound quite like anyone else’s. The booklet (generously provided free of charge) included a profile by Jo Kirkbride which, having name-checked the customary European establishment favourites, perhaps more pertinently goes on to cite Skempton, Feldman and Takemitsu as influences. There is little dynamic contrast, just a modest increase in volume as fractured, surprisingly tonal ideas pulse gently towards fulfilment. The sonority is impressive with increasingly warm textures flecked by bells and rippling low-decibel timpani. The commission had come as a consequence of the Panufnik Composers Scheme which, since 2005 has enabled more than eighty young composers to develop the skills to tackle orchestral writing.
It is easy to forget that Elgar’s Cello Concerto received little immediate exposure after its disastrous 1919 premiere – not the LSO’s finest hour! The efforts of Pablo Casals notwithstanding, it was not until HMV’s fabled Du Pré/Barbirolli recording that the work achieved hit status. In recent years German critics have given a similar reception to Daniel Müller-Schott’s Orfeo production and it was intriguing to hear the interpretation live. Müller-Schott is close-miked on disc so sounded a notch smaller in reality, even perched on a substantial riser, but there was no mistaking his command of the instrument. The performance is cooler and cleaner than Du Pré’s yet by no means pale. With intonation beyond reproach and vibrato perfectly controlled throughout, was there just a suspicion that it might all have been a little sleek? Or was it just that we are not used to lyrical climaxes being projected so cleanly, without coarsening of tone? While the soloist occasionally dallied with pockets of conversational rubato, the only jarring notes came from his own huffing and puffing and the bronchial intrusions of an audience oddly inattentive until the reprise of the slow movement, heard, mercifully, in silence. We did not deserve but were rewarded by an encore, a slowed-down, stripped-down version of Ravel’s Pièce en forme de habanera.
Exceptionally clear and precise rather than visually ‘poetic’ with her gestures, Mälkki is often credited with a refinement of detail that allows one to appreciate layers beneath the surface. In the Elgar she kept the orchestra down and ensured a fine unanimity. After the interval the Sibelius was unexpectedly craggy and emotive. Transitions were smoothly effected and minutiae nicely registered at mainstream tempos. What surprised was the sheer excitement generated with Mälkki willing to let the LSO off the leash at climaxes. The trumpets may have suffered an isolated cracked note but this was big, strong, forceful, keenly inevitable Sibelius, indubitably world-class and never mind the cramping effect of the acoustic. In the Finale’s ‘Swan Hymn’, Mälkki was concerned to bring out the complementary cellos and double basses as much as the swaying horn figures. Five years after the death of Sir Colin Davis his orchestra may have found a Sibelius conductor of comparable commitment. The coughers were silenced.