Electrifying Bruckner Seventh in Helsinki

FinlandFinland  Mozart, Bruckner: The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conductor: Kurt Masur, Helsinki Music Centre, 16.9.2011 (GF)

In May I was present at the closing concert at the Finlandia Hall and a few months later I heard one of the first orchestral concerts in the new Helsinki Music Centre (The inauguration concert took place on 1 September). There is also a chamber music hall and an organ hall in the strikingly designed Music Centre, situated just a few hundred metres closer to the city centre than the Finlandia Hall.

A short description of the main hall seems in order. I have culled the information from the Music Centre’s website:

The vineyard or surround Concert Hall forms the core of the building. It has two levels, the stalls and the balcony. .. The design of the building grows from outside in and is at its boldest in the architectural and acoustic surfaces of the Concert Hall. The surfaces create a nest-like shell hollowed out of wood. The opening between the halves of the shell gives a view from the concert hall to the lobby and from the lobby to the concert hall, the centre of action.

The stalls comprise 17 sections with seating for 1,226 people. The raked balcony has 11 sections with seating for 478 people. The stalls surround the stage and can accommodate 28 wheelchairs. The acoustics in the Concert Hall are designed for acoustic music. The Concert Hall is surrounded by a foyer of its own.

Acoustically it seemed ideal from my seat, which was in the front stalls but still rather high above the orchestra and far to the right, sitting more or less behind the viola section and seeing the conductor in profile. The sound picture was clear, resonant with a fine blend of the instruments in tutti and well projected wind solos. I do look forward to hearing further concerts from other seats in this beautiful hall.

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra may not have the international standing of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra but they are an accomplished band and the quality of the playing on this occasion was of the highest order.

Kurt Masur, who turned 84 this summer, is still very busy, as a visit to his homepage tells me. In June of next year he will, just to mention one example, conduct the Orchestre National de France on theirSouth Americatour. Like many other distinguished conductors, his conducting style has become economized with the passing of time, minimal movements, no baton, but with a watchful eye on the proceedings.

He has mainly appeared in the central 19th century repertoire with some excursions into the next century, where a recording of Britten’s War Requiem came as a surprise when I browsed his discography. He has not well-known as a Mozart interpreter, so his choice of the ‘Linz’ symphony as a concert opener was also a bit surprising. I grew up with recordings of Mozart in the big band tradition, Carl Schuricht being my first conductor. I remember them as somewhat plodding, and suspected that Masur would be on the same wavelength, but in spite of the rather large orchestral forces the sound was slim and precise. I was especially impressed by the mild and lovely Andante movement with exquisite hushed playing. This is one of Mozart’s finest slow movements and for all the skill and inventiveness of the third and fourth movements they tend to seem plain after the Andante. But of course it is always a pleasure to hear the Finale, where Masur graded the terrace dynamics very tellingly.

From Mozart to Bruckner there is a tremendous leap and Bruckner is more Masur’s territory. He recorded the complete symphony cycle with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and there are separate recordings of a couple of the symphonies as well, most prominently of the seventh, which he conducted at his inaugural concert as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Thus expectations were high after the interval.

The long drawn-out first movement with its myriad changes of direction is not easy to bring off, but Masur kept all the pieces together admirably, the ebb and flow of the music making it pulsate like life itself, up to the concluding crescendo and final eruption.

The second movement, Adagio, was written as an elegy with Wagner’s imminent death in mind. It is one of the noblest and most moving movements in the entire symphonic repertoire, with the four Wagner tubas lending particular warmth. Masur steered clear of the dubious cymbal clash at the climax, and rightly so I think. The principal flutist should also be mentioned for her excellent solo work.

The dancing scherzo evoked a rural atmosphere and the naughty trumpets made their capricious comments. There was temporary rest during the lyrical trio, but then the dancers were back, seemingly more boisterous than before. All in all, this is Bruckner at his most ebullient. With his discreet movements and one hand practically motionless, Kurt Masur made the orchestra bring out all the joyous youthfulness of the movement.

In the Finale, Masur whipped up the tension without losing the nobility that permeates the whole symphony. This was a truly electrifying evening that will be long remembered.

Göran Forsling