Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki gave the first of three performances for her second week of concerts leading the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Following last week’s all-Russian program, Mälkki shifted attention to her native Finland, presenting the first SFS performance of Jukka Tiensuu’s “Alma III: Soma” as an “overture” and concluding the evening with Jean Sibelius’ Opus 82 (fifth) symphony in E-flat major. Between these two pieces, composed at either end of the twentieth century, Mälkki presented her concerto offering of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 11 (first) piano concerto in E minor with Simon Trpčeski as soloist.
Sibelius completed the first version of Opus 82 in 1915, and it was first performed on the evening of his 50th birthday. Having allowed the music to assume its celebratory function, Sibelius recognized that the score still needed some rethinking. It went through two revisions, the last completed in 1919. This was the version that Mälkki conducted last night. The most evident change is that the original four-movement form had been distilled down to a much tighter three movements.
Much of that distillation involved a rhetorical shift from the classical approach to expository declaration to the less assertive manner of suggestion. Sibelius’ approach to a tighter structure entailed abandoning the need for a lexicon of themes in each movement. His resources never amount to much more than bare fragments of motifs; but those motifs migrate across the full resources of the orchestra, gradually establishing their familiarity by appearing in a variety of different contexts. One result is that this approach is not well served at all by the conventional exposition-development-recapitulation structure. One might almost say that each movement consists entirely of development; and “form,” as such, emerges through the interplay of the score’s elementary fragments.
Where performance is concerned, that process of emergence is conveyed through gradual changes in dynamics. This is best appreciated in the opening movements, whose overall structure amounts to a single extended crescendo (with secondary ups and downs along the way, of course). The final movement follows a similar plan, although it begins with a mezzo, rather than piano, dynamic level to stress the high energy level of the opening Allegro molto. However, what makes this movement particularly impressive is how Sibelius builds up his energy in conjunction with slowing down, rather than speeding up, the pace.
Last night Mälkki conveyed a clear understanding of the workings of this symphony. She disclosed the nature of both high-level structure and low-level detail to the attentive listener with both loving attention and meticulous precision. As she reached the climax with its enigmatically sustained grand pauses between the final chords, she summoned up the full intensity of expectation, bringing an almost frightening tension to the coda where other conductors often sound as if they have fallen through the gaps between the chords.
“Alma III: Soma” could not have been more complementary to Sibelius’ Opus 82. In this brief ten-minute whirlwind, everything is declared at a rapid-fire pace that flies around the stage from one instrument to another. (This includes wild alternations between string ensemble and string quartet.) Furthermore, by adding sampled sounds “played” through a MIDI keyboard, Tiensuu makes sure that he never runs out of sonorities to keep the attentive listener engaged. Then, as if to give that listener one last poke in the ribs, the piece comes to an abrupt conclusion, almost as if it had fallen off a cliff.
Jeanette Yu’s notes for the program book cited a comment by Harri Suilamo suggesting that Tiensuu’s sense of an ending was inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous observation: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In the context of the entire composition, Suilamo may have been looking at the wrong philosopher. This particular composition seems to owe far more to Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly in the Preface to Twilight of the Idols: “Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it.” Tiensuu definitely knows his prankishness and can clearly be very skillful in deploying it.
Unfortunately, Chopin’s Opus 11 made for a rather uncomfortable fit between these two vivid accounts of Finnish creativity. It is important to remember that Chopin was only twenty when he composed this concerto, suggesting that he was more occupied with what people thought a concerto should be than with finding his own voice, which turned out to be far more suited to shorter time scales. James M. Keller’s notes for the program book try to defend this concerto by comparing it with much of the drivel composed as piano concertos in the decade preceding the composition of Opus 11 in 1830. While there is truth in Keller’s assertion, it overlooks the fact that contemporary audiences tend to know little, if anything, about any of that drivel and are more familiar with the music that preceded that decade, which included the piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven and, before them, those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
However, if Opus 11 does not present Chopin in a particularly favorable light, Trpčeski certainly had a rhetorical toolbox with which he could make the most of the score. If there was not much to the language itself, Trpčeski could still be attentive to how each phrase was uttered. Similarly, Mälkki recognized the impact of different instruments in shading the accompanying sonorities, thus allowing the attentive listener to appreciate (more than usual) how Chopin was learning to work with an orchestral palette. Nevertheless, none of the skills of either soloist or conductor could make a solid case that this music had a rightful place in the context of the overall plan of last night’s program.