The RPO Sibelius Festival with JUKKA PEKKA SARASTE at De Doelen, Rotterdam

Final concert at De Doelen in Rotterdam 19th May 2019.

The second and final symphony concert of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra’s Sibelius festival. While Friday’s concert was more of a conventional setup (short tone poem- soloist- symphony), Maestro Jukka Pekka Saraste and the Orchestra have gone for something different today. Sibelius’ transitional middle symphonies envelop two short pieces for orchestra and mezzo-soprano, separated by the interval.

We begin with Sibelius’ Third, a symphony showing Sibelius’ drive to contain a great amount of music and expression in the fewest number of phrases, motifs and other musical attributes. In this work, Sibelius beings his journey to creating works with that characteristic sense of intense compression. The sound stands in between the romantic sound spectrum of the first two symphonies and between the more advanced Sibelius we will hear later.Maestro Saraste works with the orchestra to fit that range. While we had remarkable transparency in Sibelius’ more romantic works a two days ago, Saraste now looks for something slightly less definite. He goes along with the challenge to the listener that is set down in the score. Finding one’s way through the murky texture and unrealised culminations is not an easy task, and Maestro Saraste is not looking to make it easy. Nor should he. Sibelius’ music lives through this challenge, the challenge of waiting for and finding out what that phrase in the violins may mean, if it even is its own phrase and not part of something bigger. Especially the second movement shines in this interpretation, where Sibelius uses Finnish folk tunes to build an atmosphere that suggests something of the country, but never allows you to completely sink into it, like for example Schubert.

But the really exciting part of the concert comes with the first of two songs: Luonnotar, performed by the Finnish Mezzo Helena Juntunen. What a fantastic piece this is, and what a shame that it is played so rarely. Luonnotar translates to “Daughter of Nature” and features remarkable excitement in the orchestra. For an orchestral song, the orchestra is quite large, with two harps, doubled woodswinds and full brass. But this risk makes the song even more exciting. While the symphony feels like Sibelius being stuck between two worlds, he is clearly coming into his own here.

Eerie textures, explosive dissonances and an almost modern use of the singing voice are just a few things that make this song so exciting. Saraste extrapolates the effects even further, by regulating the dynamics effectively and dividing the higher string sections on several occasions. The song also places high demands on Juntunen’s voice, the part sounds like a conflation of the Dyer’s Wife, the Queen of the night and Minnie from Fanciulla Del West. Strauss, Mozart and Puccini, isn’t that an exciting mixture. Juntunen sings this with tons of engagement, and even if not every note is sung to the fullest tonal perfection, she does have a remarkable taste for expression and drama. Her sense of text is (being a native speaker) also superior to many of her colleagues. A final high wisp of the violins, beautifully coordinated in terms of sound quality with Juntunen’s voice, ends the first half of the concert.

The second half continues with the same excitement which the first concluded with: Maestro Saraste even gives a short precluding speech to Sibelius’ song Autumn Evening and Fourth Symphony. Saraste talks about the psychotic dimensions of these respective pieces and reminds the audience of the mood in a country where the days become over so short in the winter.

Autumn Evening is sung once again by Helena Juntunen. The song brings the same excitement as Luonnotar, but through some different musical tools: Sibelius puts the percussion section to greater use and also sketches some outstanding dynamic subtleties in the music. Especially at the beginning of the second stanza, where Juntunen sings The sun has set, Sibelius showcases some impressive musical effects.

The Fourth Symphony follows. Saraste says of this symphony, that Finns consider it to be the closest symphonic work to Sibelius’ genuine personal style. The first movement is particularly interesting: Beginning in the low strings, it sketches a perfect symphonic arc through more active woodwinds and timpani in the middle, to once again finish in the low strings. Sir Simon Rattle once said of this piece, that, to him, the first movement of Sibelius’ Fourth does in 10 minutes what Wagner’s Parsifal does in five hours. And when one hears its low, deep beginnings; the more active middle section; and the melodically reconciling ending in the strings, one knows what he means.

In this symphony, Saraste wants to give Sibelius a chance to honestly say what he wants to say. There is little extrapolation, little aggressive overdoing. Instead, there is genuine expression all around, which can range from wonderful pianissimi (woodwinds in the slow movement) to Stravinsky-like agitation (brass in the final movement). Where the first concert of the festival emphasised Sibelius’ romantic episode, this one looks for his genuine personality and completely unique manner of composing.

To round the concert off, Saraste and the orchestra give a short encore: Sibelius’ enchanting Valse Triste (played subdued but rhythmical, quintessentially Scandinavian).     Yannik Eisenaecher      19th May 2019

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics