United Kingdom Rautavaara, Beethoven, Mendelssohn: Artur Pizarro (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, John Storgårds (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 06.12.2012 (SRT)
Rautavaara: Into the heart of light (UK premiere)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 “Reformation”
At the age of 84 Einojuhani Rautavaara is showing no signs of slowing down. On the contrary: the UK premiere of his 2011 work, Into the heart of light, reminds us what a forceful and original voice he remains. Scored for string orchestra alone, Rautavaara’s work is a firmly tonal, richly harmonic creation with a strong melodic vein which tends to shift from the middle to the upper strings as the work progresses – perhaps a comment on its title. The sometimes dense texture never allows the melody to be lost but works to balance a surging middle line against shimmering upper violins. Its sound world is not a million miles away from the string works of, say, Vaughan Williams or Britten, while retaining the composer’s own very distinctive quality. For me it was accessible and very appealing, and worth seeking out in future.
It’s no surprise that it should be brought to Scotland by John Storgårds, who is chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. After the swelling string sound of Rautavaara, however, the opening of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto sounded clipped, abrupt, and even a little dry at first, the opening chord cut short to sound more like a call to attention than a regular opener. The orchestra’s occasionally curt tone was balanced by lovely solo legato from Artur Pizarro, whose fingers seemed to glide over the keyboard as if to caress it, and he produced a correspondingly silky sound. Even in the finale he brought skittish lightness to counter the muscularity of the main rondo theme. The approach of orchestra and soloist came together most appropriately in a lovely rendition of the central Adagio, the main theme on the strings here sounding mellowed and reflective, perhaps as a result of the encounter with the soloist’s particular approach in the first movement.
If the soloist took the limelight in the concerto, then in Mendelssohn’s Reformation symphony it was the different sections of the orchestra that got their own chance to shine, be it the fruity woodwinds in the scherzo or the wonderful, throbbing strings in the main theme of the Andante. Special mention, too, for the beautifully played flute cadenza that gave way to the main chorale theme of the finale. It was Storgårds’ direction that really made the piece come alive, though. He is a natural communicator, shaping the music almost tangibly through his gestures, and the orchestra clearly enjoy working with him. The gentle opening, full of suggestion, seemed to grow organically, and the emergence of the Dresden Amen on the strings felt like a magical culmination. The whole symphony followed a seemingly inexorable path to the emergence of the chorale theme in the finale, and the final pages swelled majestically, like the wind filling the sails of a ship. When played and conducted this well, it leads you to wonder why it’s one of the composer’s less well loved works.