The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Horacio Gutiérrez, piano
Grisey – Modulations (1977)
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Opus 26 (1921)
Sibelius – Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39 (1899)
Music making, one supposes wryly, can sometimes be a battle of influences. In this instance, simply put, how does one reconcile late romantic Sibelius with the compositional methods of Pierre Boulez? The very thought might give one chills….
I was intrigued to hear IRCAM’s Susanna Mälkki recently, and not simply to touch base with the new generation of influential women at the podium. I wanted to experience how her musical approach would walk the line between cerebral pointillism of the Boulezian sort and the kind of broad Barbirollian phrasing favored by Leif Segerstam, with whom she studied. Mälkki was one of the principal cellists in the Gothenburg Symphony — for Sibelius lovers a considerable entry on the romantic side of the ledger — but I find myself disappointed to say that in this instance the French modernists appear to have won most of the battles of influence.
At some yet imperfectly understood level there exists a connection between how a conductor moves physically and how music will sound, and I don’t necessarily mean by this how the baton moves. When Susanna Mälkki walked cheerfully onstage, positively vibrating with Finnish energy — slim, brisk and birdlike, acknowledging her reception with darting head motions — I knew we were in for a bracing, branch-swatted dive into the snow, more than a hand-holding candle-lit dinner. And so it was.
Mälkki radiates total confidence as she leads an orchestra, but she also seems consciously score-bound, as if confusing the instruction booklet with the music. Indeed her gestures, alert to cues and incisive though they may be, almost seem aimed at the printing itself. Throughout the concert, you might have counted on one hand the few times her gestures traveled beyond the width of her shoulders. This made it nearly impossible for the musicians to deliver anything one would call an expansive or sweeping phrase. I suspect you wouldn’t want to hear Mälkki lead a Strauss Waltz.
As for the music, the program began with Grisey’s “Modulations”, which is a good title for a work trying to do battle with serialism. Where serialists would insist all tones and notes are to be heard on their own recognizance, neither leading towards nor away from anything (except possibly the exit), the “Spectralists” would acknowledge that the ear likes to grab onto a central something-or-other, harmonically speaking, and then move around it. That said, Grisey’s music, propelled by a kind of “breathing” pulse, sometimes sounded like a sick turntable with “wow”, as the music struggled for its central pitch. But despite this harmonic wooziness, Grisey’s chords came across as typical mid-century pluck and scratch. And as usual, pitchless percussion competed endlessly with larger hollow sonorities. We’ve heard it all before. The discreet charm and emotional consolation of riveters in an airplane hangar…..Next!
The second piece of the evening, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, soon followed, with Horacio Gutiérrez emerging from the wings like a large cat in purple pajamas. His way with the music was sonorous and softly sprung, an enjoyable performance — but mismatched with the tight control of Susanna Mälkki. The most beautiful romantic moment in the concerto lies midway through the first movement, where a long crescendo revs-up the piece like a toy truck with a friction motor and lets it coast on smooth asphalt. The clarinet and piano are then given time to overlap canonically in beautiful riffs on the opening melody. A little expansion here is the order of the day, but Mälkki sounded as if it nearly killed her to provide it.
Fortunately, the concerto tends to push forward elsewhere, and an absence of romantic rhetoric is not likely to be a problem. The slow movement contains a wonderful syncopated mid-section, where the music sounds for all the world as though it were galumphing backwards. This was all done with great energy and effect.
And it would be hard to quibble too much with the finale, which knew where it was going. The concerto ends incisively, and if Prokofiev, it seemed, were trying to stab the listener with ice-picks as it ended, you might need to blame him as much as Susanna Mälkki.
So far so good. But now comes trouble. I will admit that the First Symphony of Sibelius contains one of the oddest Allegro themes ever composed. Its phrases are uneven and its syncopated rhythm as elastic as tether ball. It sounds like Sibelius’ miming in sound the phrase “I’m Jean Sibelius”, while something gets stuck in his throat trying to say the last syllable. It can sound like a dog doubling down on trying to swallow something, and conductors have a long history of struggling with it. Indeed, you seldom hear it done the same way twice. Anthony Collins, in an old monaural recording from about 1950, took this theme at a breakneck speed, just to get away from it as quickly as possible into something else. These days, Vanska tends to do the same thing.
Susanna Mälkki, to her credit, didn’t blast through this at high speed, but instead led it too literally at a normal tempo. The net result was a slightly dull performance of an exciting work. I’ve never understood where Sibelius got the revving “airplane engines” that seem to strafe the listener during the first movement development section, (after all, this was composed in 1899), but their effect was totally lost here. Mälkki seemed to have no interest in bringing that sort of thing off. Similarly, the nostalgia of the slow movement and the great Tchaikovskian melody of the finale were almost totally ignored. And the creepy, ominous endings of both the first movement and the piece itself sounded like a psychiatrist saying “We have to stop now.” So much for black dots on a page….
That sort of says it all, doesn’t it? Maybe we should stop now.