Helsinki. Helsinki Music Centre. 10-XI-2017. J.S. Bach (1685-1750)/arr. Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936): Prelude and Fugue in D major; Matthew Whittall (b. 1975): Nameless Seas; Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)/arr. Ottorino Respighi: La mer et les mouettes, Op. 39/2; Sergei Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. Risto-Matti Marin: piano; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conductor: Olari Elts
Matthew Whittall’s new piano concerto, Nameless Seas, was effective in evoking not only literal but also metaphorical feelings of the sea.
Respighi is best known for his ecstatically colorful symphonic portraits of Rome, which are textbook demonstrations of orchestral brilliance. Respighi’s orchestration of Bach’s D major Prelude and Fugue is further evidence of the Italian composer’s orchestral wizardry. Particularly striking in the opening Prelude was Respighi’s ability to closely mimic the colors of an organ within an orchestral soundworld; this was especially apparent in the deep pedal tones of the low brass and low strings and the reedy sounds of the upper woodwinds. Organ mimicry was less apparent in the opening of the Fugue, but Respighi pulled out all the stops again in the work’s blazing conclusion.
Canadian-born composer Matthew Whittall has made his home in Finland since the early 2000s and is a regular presence in orchestral concerts in Helsinki. Nameless Seas is a piano concerto commissioned by the PianoEspoo festival and the National Arts Centre of Canada and written for the pianists Angela Hewitt and Risto-Matti Marin. This evening’s performance was the Finnish premiere of the work.
According to Whittall, images of the sea figure prominently throughout his life and memories. While bearing this in mind, I was struck but just how effective this piece was in evoking not only literal but also metaphorical feelings of the sea. The opening movement, Nocturne, portrayed gently heaving and undulating waters in the darkness, marked by upward flourishes in the piano and distant horn calls. The music evolved organically into the second movement, Land and Sea, which was marked by effective and colorful use of metal percussion, unambiguously depicting the sound of the ocean as it crashes onto land. Steel drums made a prominent appearance in the rapidly scurrying third movement, Wake, but Whittall remained firmly in his sound world without making overt references to Caribbean music. A solo cadenza, which became progressively calmer and introspective (as opposed to virtuosic), led into the final movement, Unclaimed Waters. The closing pages were perhaps the most inspired of the entire work; chillingly rocking strings and tolling harp created a haunting, hypnotic trance. Was this a leave-taking? An exploration of the unknown?
Rachmaninov was the featured composer of the program’s second half. Respighi’s orchestration of the Rachmaninov’s La mer et les mouettes was a strikingly successful rendition of Russian master’s orchestral soundworld; one could have been fooled into thinking that this was material cut from The Isle of the Dead.
Rachmaninov’s final work, Symphonic Dances, is a distillation of the composer’s clearly recognizable aesthetic into a concise and relatively (by the composer’s standards) unsentimental utterance. Under Elts’ direction, the opening movement was taut and disciplined, but never unnecessarily steely. The saxophone-led central episode was perhaps a bit too cooly played and lacked a sense of leave-taking. The ghostly second movement waltz found Elts focusing on orchestrational color and detail. The central leave-taking episode of the final movement was poignantly rendered, and under Elts’ direction the blazing conclusion was exciting and disciplined, but perhaps somewhat restrained.
Credit photo: Olari Elts © Marco Borggreve