Immediately after the last chord of Sibelius' Second Symphony, just before the applause, a huge sigh came from the heart of the Berwaldhallen, the Swedish Radio concert hall in Stockholm. Like many other orchestras around the world, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra has been on the back foot since March 2020, reduced to giving concerts on radio or via video streaming without an audience. But on Thursday, 9th September, this long and difficult period came to an end and a new leaf was turned: after 18 long months, the audience is back in the concert hall and the "rebirth", the theme of this 2021 edition of the Baltic Sea Festival, is underway.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Arne Hyckenberg

The festival's organisers haven't done things by halves, producing a spectacular and memorable opening concert. Their stated aim is to create links around live music after months of closed borders. The programming of the first part of the concert is done with great intelligence and its execution is impressive: four works are performed without the slightest interruption, taking us through three centuries of music in about 40 minutes. One can't help feeling that Stockholm, this superb city-archipelago of 14 islands, has some experts in the business of constructing bridges.

The gangways were obvious between Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 32 and Anders Hillborg's Kongsgaard Variations (the Swedish composer developed his work around the theme of Beethoven's Arietta), and between Bach's Partita no. 3 for solo violin and Salonen's Fog (the Finn reinvents the prelude by passing it through a fantastical orchestral kaleidoscope). But one still needed to have the idea of constructing them and linking them together! Many French programmers who continue to reproduce the perennial form of overture-concerto-symphony would do well to be inspired by this way of doing things: joining the model and its extension or the work and its source of inspiration creates a game of mirrors that offers a different way of contemplating each of the two pieces. If the effect of surprise is skilfully worked, it always makes for a joyous concert: in this case, when Johan Dalene embarked on Bach's prelude from the second balcony, with an authoritative bow, one could feel the heartbeat quicken in the ranks of the Berwaldhallen, socially distanced or not.

Terés Löf plays Beethoven's Arietta
© Arne Hyckenberg

The rest of this first half is remarkable in every way. At the back of a stage plunged into darkness, Terés Löf really plays the choral card in the Arietta, particularly emphasising the timbre of the bass line, which allows us to follow her elongated phrasing as if suspended from her keyboard. Without transition, in Hillborg's magnificently orchestrated variations, the string sections show the qualities that will be theirs throughout the evening: what intensity in the timbre, what investment in the posture, what collective accuracy, what homogeneity in the bowing! And yet, the musicians are still distanced from each other, each behind their own desk...

In Salonen's Fog, the musicians' commitment spreads to the remainder of the orchestra. Composed in 2019 to commemorate the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the work is joyful, frenetic, furiously dancing, a symbol of a new world that does not forget what it owes to previous generations. On the podium, the composer lets rip. With clear and sharp baton movements, wide and welcoming gestures and a radiant face, Salonen is at home here at the Baltic Sea Festival that he helped to found in the early 2000s, and you can feel it: visibly very moved by this return to life in Stockholm, the maestro multiplies the embraces sent to the audience and the osmosis with the orchestra is obvious.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Arne Hyckenberg

The second part of the concert goes even further: Salonen spreads his wings over Sibelius' Second Symphony and never touches the ground. The maestro is intimately familiar with this score, its progression and fluctuations, its musicians, and the very special acoustics of the Berwaldhallen (the slightest pianissimo can be heard very clearly, which allows for magical timpani strikes). The work is delivered with overwhelming spontaneity, without fuss, without yielding to the temptation of unnecessarily sinuous phrasing: the motifs are direct, the timbres frank, the fortissimi explosive but without ever overflowing the large hexagon formed by the hall's tiers. From the third movement onwards, the progression towards the triumph of the finale gives goosebumps and many in the audience will have their glasses fogged up: so visible is the joy of playing again in front of an audience on the faces and in the bodies of the performers that the work, already naturally powerful, takes on an exceptional dimension. And finally, a stroke of the bow that Salonen accompanies with his baton, then the huge sigh of relief and joy in the audience: live music is back in Berwaldhallen.

The concert was both performed live and live-streamed on video. You can watch it until 8th December 2021 here.

Tristan's press trip was sponsored by the Baltic Sea Festival.

English translation by David Karlin