This concert by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of their Chief Conductor, Susanna Mälkki, followed a local tradition: the orchestra regularly concludes its Autumn Season with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor "Choral", which this year coincided with the composer’s 250th anniversary. Notwithstanding the pandemic’s brutal impact on people’s lives and plans, the decision was made to proceed with the concert and its programme. With great determination and meticulous preparation in equal parts, the Finns produced the appropriate circumstances to put on Beethoven’s last symphony, usually performed with a large orchestra, four solo singers and a full choir, in Helsinki’s Music Centre (Musiikkitalo).

Susanna Mälkki
© Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

This was a Beethoven Ninth like never before. The choir stalls behind the large stage were covered in darkness, in stark contrast with the stage itself, painted white. The effect of this large light surface was off set by the musicians’ black music stands, chairs and clothes in pleasing harmony. “From darkness to light” would be a possible translation of the well-known Latin saying, per aspera ad astra.

The orchestra was surprisingly (and wisely) reduced to 45 musicians to start with (a few more joined their ranks for the last two movements). Most, but not all, string players wore face masks, and they all used individual music stands, making physical distancing possible. That new phenomenon developed in recent times, the “streaming uniform”, was evident here: without an audience, but with the probing lenses of the drone cameras, the gentlemen looked terrific, with their white shirt/black suit extended by elegant grey ties.

At streamed concerts, the conductor walking in without the encouraging applause of the enthusiastic audience always looks awkward, as it insists on a tradition that is no more relevant. Covid-19 will not disappear anytime soon and the streamed concert – appearing to be a highly unusual experiment barely ten months ago – is here to stay. It resembles a live concert in so many ways, but it is not a live concert. It needs its own protocol.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
© Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

At the beginning of the broadcast, Mälkki stood on the podium and, without further ado, cued the mysterious string tremolos on open fifths. The phenomenal effect of this opening never misses its target: for a whole sixteen bars, until the explosive D minor tutti arpeggio, the listener cannot establish if this symphony is in a major or minor key.

Mälkki is a “let’s get down to business” type of conductor. Her technique is excellent, undoubtedly at least partially reflecting her extensive background conducting contemporary music. It was comforting to watch that when her baton hits the lowest point, that is exactly where she wants the beat to be, making it easy for the orchestra to follow. Her reading of the first movement was accurate but with fewer agogics than one might be accustomed to.

As a further surprise, the size of the orchestra – about half of what one might expect in an ordinary performance – caused no problem to the sound or its volume at all. While slightly lighter, the players produced a transparent tone, in which even minor details could clearly be noticed. This was beneficial in the steady but consistent drive of the Scherzo. Mälkki’s somewhat clinical approach worked in many sections, but less so in the third movement’s reverential introduction. While she and the orchestra followed the instructions of the score closely, the sublime, almost sacral melodies sounded pedestrian at times.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
© Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

At the conclusion of this heavenly music, the lights went on in the choir stalls and it turned out that the members of the Helsinki Chamber Choir had been waiting there all along. They were situated in alternate rows, at least two metres apart. The singers in the back rows were delicately amplified – another indication of a non-conventional solution in a new situation. In a side box, the four excellent solo singers: soprano Helena Juntunen, mezzo-soprano Virpi Räisänen, tenor Loïc Félix and baritone Tommi Hakala were seated. Because of the extremely spacious seating, orchestra and chorus took up about the same physical space as a traditional performance would require, only with about half as many musicians on stage. Mälkki’s control of these widely spaced performers was superb, a difficult task, as traditional thinking suggests that the performers should sit as close to each other as possible. The chorus produced as much persuasive power as needed. Among several highlights, the “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” section stood out with the momentous unison between the male voices, and cellos and double basses.

An uplifting concert to give solace to people feeling vanquished by an annus terribilisPer aspera ad astra.

This performance was reviewed from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra's live video stream