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Susanna Mälkki conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic in Sibelius and Prokofiev

’s recent programs with her future band, the Helsinki Philharmonic, have featured healthy portions of standard repertory.

This is probably reassuring to the segment of the audience that might be apprehensive of Mälkki’s reputation as a new-music specialist. Tonight’s program of warhorses by two well-known composers not only demonstrated that Mälkki embraces the standard repertory, but also has something unique to say about it.

The program opened with a Sibelius rarity, the Romance in C major. Despite the work’s brevity and title, this piece is a serious utterance, and would have been ripe for further development. After a mildly tempestuous opening, the music settled into gentler territory, perhaps nostalgic. Although the cellos at the work’s coda suggested moving into new territory, Sibelius refrained from taking the music further and arrived at a gentle conclusion.

Despite the work’s episodic construction, Mälkki maintained a strong sense of both coherence and shape, while drawing out some especially warm playing from the Helsinki strings.

Simon Trpčeski was the soloist in the next work on the program, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. While it is important for the soloist’s personality to be present in a concerto performance, sometimes it is equally important to stand back and let the composer’s music speak for itself; this is what we had here.

Trpčeski’s performance was distinctly non-interventionist, almost balletic in its grace, but always firmly in control. Trpčeski simply let Prokofiev be Prokofiev; the music’s virtuosity, shifts of mood, soaring lyricism, and of course brittleness spoke for itself.

Mälkki was not only a sensitive partner throughout, but also placed the orchestra on an almost equal footing with the soloist. As a result, numerous orchestral details normally dismissed as accompaniment were brought to the fore, in particular Prokofiev’s writing for horns and woodwinds.

Performances of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 by the world’s greatest Sibelius interpreters is practically an annual event in Helsinki. Given the high expectations, there was a palpable sense of anticipation as to what insights the future music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic could bring to this beloved work.

Mälkki’s take on the first movement seemed to emphasize more of the mysterious rather than the meandering; the first main climax was imposing in its grandeur rather than a dramatic release of tension. The highly chromatic string writing before the movement’s coda was almost unhinged in its controlled frenzy, before Mälkki emphatically restored order on the home key.

The lilting second movement opened with notable restraint, which provided additional contrast to Mälkki’s particularly full-bodied climax. The « big tune » of the final movement was broad and sweeping–perhaps even ecstatic and joyful. The hushed and scurrying string writing in the movement’s central section was absolutely magical, and the final, heaving waves of brass before the abrupt conclusion was almost physical in its power.

Mälkki’s rapport with her future band is clearly apparent; the Helsinki Philharmonic (and its audience) has a lot to look forward to.

Photo : (c) Simon Fowler