Mälkki Brings No-Nonsense Style to Rich Scoring

United StatesUnited States  Griffes, Bartók, Brahms: Jeremy Denk (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 29.11.2014 (HS)

Griffes: The White Peacock, Op. 7 No. 1
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major

This post-Thanksgiving concert by the San Francisco Symphony put together two formidable musicians who, happily, seem to apply equal shares of intellectual rigor and sheer joy to their music-making. Finnish-born Susanna Mälkki, who recently was appointed chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, brought a no-nonsense, detail-oriented style that well served the overall arcs of three disparate works, including an amiable traversal of Bartók’s easygoing Piano Concerto No. 3 (which quotes a Thanksgiving hymn in its slow movement).

The opening set the tone: The White Peacock by Griffes, a marvelous five minutes of colorful orchestration and charming sound-painting. Mälkki communicated the timbres and dynamics she wanted with precise hand and body gestures, her podium presence authoritative without calling too much attention to itself. With no baton, she seemed to form the music by subtly adjusting the shape of her hands. The piece began with a few minutes to relish the soft hues of gauzy harmonies and whole-tone melodic gestures before revving up to a rich climax, the peacock’s tail furling quietly on the finish.

A similar appreciation of sound clarity infused the Bartók, which tones down the spiky harmonies and angular melodies of his other concertos in favor of brilliant scene-painting. Denk’s playing was not nearly as sharp-edged as many can be in this composer; he preferred a soft, more lyrical touch. Although this took some of the zing from more rhythmic sections, it paid dividends in the many lyrical moments.

For example, the end of the first movement was especially captivating, with its flirtation between the piano and a delicate flourish of flute. Denk spun out the gentle opening theme with consummate good taste, and Mälkki kept the pulse flowing—Hungarian folk nostalgia played out in brief dance episodes. The entire second movement gleamed as Denk’s piano announced a glorious hymn and the orchestra wrapped it seamlessly in chords. The hymn then welled up beautifully in the orchestra as Denk decorated it with marvelous restraint, before coming to a quiet close. The jaunty finale brought things to a snappy conclusion.

After intermission, Mälkki avoided “traditional” glosses on what Brahms actually wrote in his Symphony No. 2, preferring instead to let the score speak for itself. That includes the fermatas most conductors interpolate in the final pages of the finale. Though these full stops may be intended to amplify the drama, it is even more thrilling to hear the music power through without losing momentum.

The entire performance seemed centered on shaping phrasing and balancing dynamics within the orchestra to make the music unfold without fuss. Mälkki had the orchestra on its toes, playing with responsiveness and clarity without sacrificing harmonic richness. There was propulsiveness throughout that lurked beneath the surface, until the finale snapped the restraints and sped to its breathless conclusion.

Harvey Steiman

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