Helsinki Philharmonic/Susanna Mälkki at Carnegie Hall – Sibelius – with Claire Chase playing Kaija Saariaho’s Aile du songe

Sibelius

Lemminkäinen Legends, Op.22 – iv: Lemminkäinen’s Return

Saariaho

Aile du songe

Sibelius

Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Claire Chase (flute)

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 9 May, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Fifty-five years after its only previous appearance at Carnegie Hall, the Helsinki Philharmonic returned, with a Finnish program, opening with a rousing rendition of ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’, the final movement of the four-part Lemminkäinen Legends about one of the heroes of the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, here recounting how the eponymous warrior, after dying in battle and being brought back to life, returns home. Susanna Mälkki, in perfect control, shaped a gritty and powerful narrative of the tumultuous and triumphant journey, allowing it to build up plenty of steam.

Kaija Saariaho’s flute Aile de songe balanced Claire Chase’s radiant sound against the ensemble’s expressive, finely detailed playing. Based on Oiseaux by the Nobel Prize-winning French poet Saint-John Perse, the 2001 work depicts birds in flight and the mysteries of life in two main parts – ‘Aérienne’ and ‘Terrestre’ – spread over five strikingly different descriptive sections. The most impressive is the first third of the second part, ‘Oiseau dansant’, which refers to an Aboriginal tale about a mythological bird who teaches a village how to dance. Here the mostly meditative mood of the first part gives way to frenetic rhythms and wild syncopations as the flute murmurs, quivers, swerves, and even hisses as the soloist periodically vocalizes instrumental lines. The piece ends with ‘L’oiseau, un satellite infime’, a bird circling the Earth in a final fitful flight and then fading away into silence. Chase’s playing was superb, and the orchestra’s response was equally energetic and engaged.

In Sibelius’s Second Symphony Mälkki used her precise and invigorating gestures to elicit a grand and thrillingly dramatic reading, full of glorious sounds: the golden-toned declamations of the horns in the development of the opening Allegretto, the creeping sense of suspense in the pizzicato basses and cellos at the beginning of the second movement, the eloquently molded oboe theme in the third, and the magnificently rendered great tune of the Finale, a splendid account marked by highly polished playing and a tension that totally engaged throughout, followed by two Sibelius encores, a poignant Valse Triste and, after Mälkki asked us to allow a bit of patriotism, a stirring Finlandia.

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