In the former capital of Finland you can feel history with every breath, so what could be a better place for a concert than the medieval Turku Castle? “Bullfighter’s Prayer” featured music of Latin American and Spanish composers such as Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Turina and Heitor Villa-Lobos, along with Frenchman Georges Bizet, arranged for strings and French horn section. In addition the program included selections from opera, ballet and tango combining elements from both popular and classical, so there was something for everybody. It was interesting that they came up with such a splendid performance for such a small line-up, especially in such ambitious arrangements.

© Turku Philharmonic
© Turku Philharmonic

Since this year marks the 140th anniversary of Manuel De Falla’s birth, it was appropriate to start the show with the farruca from his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. The Spanish composer was famous because of the distinct national flavours in his work (farruca being a style of flamenco characteristic of his native Andalusia). The Three-Cornered Hat begins with a mellow call played by a French horn. This indicates a bugle call for the toreador to face death or glory. After this came impressive flamenco-style rhythms marked by strong accents.

The brass section also performed extracts from Bizet’s ever-popular opera, Carmen. Rather than the seductive Habanera or the triumphant Toreador's Song, the horns played extracts from the lesser-known numbers in daring arrangements by retired French horn player Klaus Wallendorf, which were pure bliss. Wallendorf, who played in the Berliner Philharmoniker for over 30 years, takes advantage of a variety of timbres from mellow calls to bombastic stingers that can blow your mind. For a quartet, the ensemble sounded grandiose and symphonic.

Joaquín Turina
Joaquín Turina
The concert alternated between brass quartet and string quartet. The latter performed The Bullfighter’s Prayer by another Spanish composer, Joaquín Turina, in which you could hear ingredients from the folk music of Seville where he was born. The piece varies between a dramatic minor motif driving with 2/4 flamenco rhythm and quieter melodic parts showcasing passionate solo violin with gypsy flavour.The composer was inspired by seeing bullfighters praying in a small chapel before entering the arena.

The strings continued with the String Quartet no. 1 by Brazilian composer Heitor-Villa Lobos, who combined classical elements to his own native style and wrote a total 17 string quartets between 1915 and 1957. His first quartet (revised from his 1915 Suíte graciosa in 1946) is made up of six movements, alternating between faster dances and slower melodic ones. The strings played with great devotion, even if the strings had not taken as many risks as the horns in Wallendorf's arrangements.

Since the Finns are considered as tango people, I couldn't help feeling a certain affection towards the pieces performed at the end of the concert. One of the greatest figures in Argentine tango is Anselmo Aiteta. His song Corralera, originally performed with bandoneon, was arranged for horns and renamed Cornalera. The song also has elements of other styles like the beguine. Cornalera was followed by Consuelo Velasquez’s Besame Mucho, one of the most recorded Mexican ballads with a swinging beguine rhythm. The version here captured the very soul of the song. The strings also played Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Ballet which was one of the highlights. Originally composed to a ballet film, it showcases the essential characteristic of Piazzolla’s music combining elements from jazz and art music both in melody and harmony known as Nuevo tango. Although I was hoping for a more aggressive touch, the strings put on a fine performance. Finally both sections combined forces with a lush encore of Granada, launched with dramatic rubato. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.