Farewell to Finlandia Hall:Mahler and Haydn bid adieu to Helsinki Philharmonic’s old home

Mahler, Haydn: Juhan Tralla (tenor), Gabriel Suovanen (baritone), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra – John Storgårds (conductor) at the Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, 18.5.2011 (GF)

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Haydn: Symphony no. 45 in f-sharp minor (’Farewell Symphony’)

The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has had its home at the Finlandia Hall for four decades, but come autumn 2011 it will move a few hundred metres southwards to the new Music Centre, and the concert on 18 May was the orchestra’s farewell to the old hall. The choice of programme was very manifest. The long final movement of Mahler’s ‘Song of the Earth’ is entitled Der Abschied (Farewell) and Haydn’s symphony very explicitly tells us that now it’s over, musically as well as visually.

John Storgårds also offered readings characterized by inwardness and restraint. It is true that the opening drinking song was full of exuberance and the tenor soloist initially had problems projecting over the orchestra, but the balance was soon adjusted and Juhan Tralla’s lyric voice could make its mark. This music is anything but showy and the mood was rather subdued throughout. For once we got to hear the alternative version with a baritone instead of a contralto and with the versatile and stylish Gabriel Suovanen this was no disadvantage. His voice is youthful and mellifluous but as we know from the opera house, he has power in abundance as well. In this performance it was the softer side that dominated and he sang beautifully and sensitively in Der Einsame im Herbst, even more so in Von der Schönheit.

But it was, as always, the finale that gripped everybody the most, and Storgårds and Suovanen created a magic feeling during the thirty-minute-long movement, the last part so hushed, so inward, so frail.

Playing Haydn after this may seem like sacrilege but with a substantial interval and a glass of wine in the foyer the audience were prepared to savour also Haydn’s subtleties and subdued mood. I can imagine Prince Esterházy’s astonishment when this symphony was first performed. Supposed to be light-hearted entertainment, it instead opened with a dramatic minor-key movement, like the overture for a tragic opera or even a requiem mass. Here Storgårds sculptured the music with his bare hands.

The second movement retained the dark mood: restrained, elegiac, sighing. The scherzo too was anything but joyous. By now the prince must have felt rather uncomfortable. There is a hidden message, could it be …? He may have been temporarily relieved with the swift opening of the finale – but only temporarily. The gears were soon shifted, and the elegiac mood was back. The music became softer and softer and as the French horn player blew out his candle and walked out, a light was trained on him. One by one, the musicians ceased playing and walked out, the platform became darker and darker, and eventually there were only two violins left, playing almost inaudibly. Then they also left. A single candle flickered on a table. At Esterházy, Haydn probably rose from his stool and blew it out; in Helsinki, John Storgårds stood motionless for quite a while, then he stepped down from the rostrum, the last candle went out and the audience were sitting motionless in the pitch black hall. Slowly the applause started, hesitantly at first, the hall was illuminated and after quite some time Storgårds peeped out and waved discreetly. Farewell everyone! It is the end of an era. See you again at the Music Centre!

Göran Forsling