Viva Finlandia! [Finnish Independence Day Concert]

Cubistic Strophes [World premiere]
La clemenza di Tito – Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio; Deh per questo istante solo
Zaïde – Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben
Die Zauberflöte – Der Hölle Rache
Così fan tutte – Prenderò quel brunettino
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Kaisa Ranta (soprano)
Essi Luttinen (mezzo-soprano)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Eva Ollikainen

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 13 November, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

This concert celebrated Finnish musical achievements in a number of complimentary ways. Sibelius was represented of course and so was new music. Two fine singers showed that vocal standards among the younger generation are aspiring to those displayed by their older, world-famous fellow professionals.

And the concert was also celebrating 100 years of full political rights for Finnish women. It was only right, therefore, that the concert was conducted by a young Finnish lady, Eva Ollikainen, whose reputation is already spreading beyond her home country with performances of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony in Sweden and Germany to her credit.

On this occasion she welded a disparate programme into a satisfying whole through sheer elan and force of personality. Her somewhat imperious manner on the podium, straight-backed and with a long baton to control her assembled forces, she immediately showed her intent with a deeply serious opening statement to Finlandia, long adopted as Finland’s unofficial national anthem. She had prepared this war-horse carefully and crafted the great tune with care and attention to the Finnish inflections often overlooked. It was a splendid start to this Finnish Independence Day Concert.

Cubistic Strophes, from 2005, by Sami Klemola (born 1973), showed a considerable ability to write idiomatically for large orchestral forces. In this case the rhythmic thrust of the opening was carried forward by various percussion instruments. This grew into a forceful section for full orchestra which turned out to be the, maybe too soon, climactic moment of the work. Thereafter sounds subsided to almost whispers carrying forward the musical argument in the shadow of the earlier heard roar. The end dissolved until a final loud chord signalled the end of an interesting and innovative work, whose structure was deliberately opaque in line with its title.

There followed five Mozart arias, the first four shared equally by Kaisa Ranta and Essi Luttinen, if sung in a different order to that of the programme (that above is correct). Essi Luttinen took the ‘Tito’ arias, the first, ‘Parto, parto…’ including a fine clarinet obbligato from Ona Cardona. Their singing gave much pleasure – Kaisa Ranta (who included a Queen of the Night aria from ‘Magic Flute’) showing a considerable emotional range and Luttinen warmed to her task and displayed good potential. They elegantly combined in a glorious duet from “Così fan tutte”.

Sibelius’s great Fifth Symphony closed the concert. Although now firmly placed as one of the most popular of all works from the last century, it remains strange, bewildering and intoxicating in equal measure particularly in the opening movement where motion is literally created from the slow horn call to the blazing glory of the coda. Ollikainen conducted with a firm beat and a clear view to the end game, leading to a furious assault to the summit only reached in the final bar of this stimulating and complex movement.

She continued paying attention to detail in a finely crafted middle movement and launched the sublime finale with scurrying strings heralding the ‘Swan Hymn’ theme which carries all before it. Offering a mirror to the first movement, the finale’s fast music gradually emerges into a slow procession of blazing brass affirming the potential conflict inherent in the harmonic possibilities of the ‘hymn’, the coda overcoming chronic anxiety before the final crashing chords offer resolution of a kind.

The students of the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra worked well for its young conductor; the players were responsive to the various demands made upon them, showing tremendous verve in Sibelius and attention to detail in the piece by Klemola, and concertmaster Eric Wang was clearly influential in conjuring up the great spirit displayed throughout. The shivering strings in the first movement of Sibelius’s symphony remain a strong memory and an object lesson for bringing detail that is often relegated to the background into the foreground thereby changing the music’s perception considerably.

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