Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, currently Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, made her debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in 2012. Since that time her visits to Davies Symphony Hall have been imaginative, stimulating, and technically disciplined, making her return visits consistently welcome. Last night she led SFS in the first of three concerts of a program that boldly decided to sandwich one of the early piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven between two pieces by Igor Stravinsky. The earlier of these was composed at the end of the first quarter-century of Stravinsky’s life, the same “landmark” period in which Beethoven had composed his piano concerto. The later still endures as the composer’s most revolutionary effort.
The Beethoven concerto was his Opus 15, the first to be published but, if we count the WoO 4 concerto in E-flat major, the third to be written. Currently scholarship puts Opus 15 as having been written in 1795, by which time Beethoven had an established reputation in Vienna as a piano virtuoso. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven used his early concertos as a platform in which he could strut his stuff; but, while many of Mozart’s performances were given for the benefit of the privileged aristocracy, Beethoven had become a popular public figure.
Last night’s soloist was Garrick Ohlsson; and he knew just the right rhetorical devices to present this concerto as having been designed for “mass appeal” without ever reducing the results to vulgarity. Indeed, there was something historical in Ohlsson’s approach, even if it did not happen to involve Beethoven’s history. Instead, his reading reflected the prevailing aesthetic of the first half of the twentieth century, a time when both soloists and conductors played everything as if it had been written in the nineteenth century (even if the composer had been long dead by that time). Those who are acutely sensitive to “historically-informed” performances tend to shun this style the way a vampire shuns the sign of the Cross; but Ohlsson played with an informed sensitivity that gently (and sometimes not so gently) reminded us that, taken on their own terms, those bad old days of the early twentieth century were not as bad as all that.
Most importantly, by playing on a modern instrument, Ohlsson could exploit a range of dynamic levels far wider than would have been available to Beethoven; and Mälkki sized her string section to match that breadth on the orchestral side. The result was a bold (but not bullying) approach through which we could appreciate that Beethoven had written this concerto for the sake of showing off his talents, not only as a keyboard virtuoso but also as a composer who had caught on to all the tricks of his former teacher Joseph Haydn and wanted everyone to know that he had some new ones of his own. The result was a performance by both soloist and conductor that honored the past but delightfully established itself in the context of our own immediate present.
Mälkki chose to precede the Beethoven concerto with a performance of Stravinsky’s Opus 3, which he called “Scherzo fantastique.” As already observed, when he wrote this Stravinsky was at about the same age when Beethoven had composed his Opus 15 concerto. However, if, by that time, Beethoven had moved on from the influences of his teachers, Stravinsky was particularly close to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had seen the manuscript but died before he had a chance to listen to the music.
The notes by James M. Keller for the program book emphasize that connection by calling out a family resemblance between the opening section and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” which may just have been the student learning from the master about the rhetoric of rapidity. The fact is that those familiar with the Rimsky-Korsakov canon will recognize any number of the master’s tropes, none of which suggest that the student was taking the easy way out by copying his master.
More surprising is a passing intrusion by Richard Wagner in the middle section. Keller’s notes identified this as “shades of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde;” but, with all due respect, I think he needs to brush up on his Wagner listening. Most likely Stravinsky had lifted a bit of the “Good Friday Spell” music from Parsifal, probably figuring that it would give his master a chuckle or two. (A raucous guffaw would have been more appropriate, but I knew enough to restrain myself last night!)
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the music that Stravinsky wrote for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” This is probably Stravinsky’s most famous composition, if not for all the bold innovations that separated it from his previous ballet score (for Michel Fokine’s “Petrushka”) then definitely for all the stories about the riot that broke out at the first performance on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Last night Mälkki conducted the 1947 revision of the original score. The program book explained that this was one of several revisions “that have allowed corrections of unintended errors and oversights as well as alterations of details by the composer.” More likely, Stravinsky relied on those “alternations” to provide grounds for taking out a new copyright!
Stravinsky’s score has been performed frequently over the years since 1995, which is when my wife and I first started to attend SFS concerts regularly. Listening to the music is always exciting, but I was delighted by the ways in which Mälkki’s interpretation directed my attention to details I had not previously given much thought. Most interesting are the many subtle ways in which many of the lines in the string section are taken by a solo instrument, either individually or in chamber-music sized groups. Everyone remembers the most aggressive moments of this score, but Mälkki knew how to make the key moments of quietude just as memorable.
I also had the advantage of a viewing point from which I could pay attention to her style as a conductor. I was particularly struck by her having the confidence to avoid over-conducting this music. More often then not, she could set the machinery in motion, so to speak, and then make sure that the following critical moments were properly cued. Nevertheless, there was never any sign of her being unaware of what was happening in all of its massive entirety. The result was one of the freshest accounts of this score that I have experienced for some time, providing yet another reason why I refuse to miss out on any visit that Mälkki makes to this city.