Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki made a very strong impression in her debut concert with the Cleveland Orchestra this week. Her guest soloist, American pianist Jeremy Denk, was also brilliant in Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto no. 3. In some ways, this concert seemed a continuation of the orchestra's 90th birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez. The connections were several: Mälkki has strong ties to Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain; Denk has now moved into the role of America's brainiac pianist, a position formerly held by early Boulez collaborator Charles Rosen. Both the Bartók and Stravinsky were works that Boulez conducted frequently, including a definitive recording of trouchka with the Cleveland Orchestra. Whether any of these connections were consciously planned or completely coincidental, they made for a stimulating evening at Severance Hall. Conductor and pianist seemed an ideal pair, with a striking mix of musical intellect and as well as a sense of drama in their performances.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

Jean Sibelius's The Oceanides (Aallottaret), was composed in 1914 on a commission from a music festival in Connecticut. Sibelius wrote three completely different versions of the work (the first two unperformed), before settling on the third one heard here. He was less influenced by the Finnish nationalism of his earlier works, and The Oceanides more closely reflects French impressionism. The mysterious, soft timpani rolls and striking flute duet that open the work are the first evocation of the ocean that is omnipresent throughout. At times bells ring in the distance; there are harp glissandi, and many repeated string notes. Despite the many notes, the overall effect is harmonically slow-moving. After a big climax, the sea calms for a quiet ending. The Oceanides is a work that probably benefits more than most from live performance, to hear the texture of the orchestral sound and the striking effects. Susanna Mälkki led a reading that had clarity, but caught the impressionist sensuality.

Jeremy Denk's performance of Bartók's 1945 Piano Concerto no. 3 was thrilling. From the beginning of the first movement, with its lyrical, quirky melodies tinged with Hungarian harmonies, the intricate dialogues between piano and orchestra were precise. Denk's playing had the clarity of a fine Mozart performance, but when required, he had the power to ride over the full orchestra. The second movement opens with the strings playing without vibrato, then gradually “warming” the sound, interspersed with somber piano chorales. A central section in a faster tempo pits orchestral fragments versus piano; the piano part mimics the pizzicati of the strings. Later the winds trades the piano for the chorale, with the piano in an elaborate decorative obbligato. The end of the second movement leads directly into third movement, which is more overtly virtuosic; yet the piano part is consistently integrated with the orchestra. There are no extended solo cadenzas. Denk's playing in the third movement was fierce, leading to a ferocious conclusion. Denk and Mälkki were of one mind in their conception of the concerto, alternating lyricism and humor with driving, thunderous climaxes.

After several curtain calls, Denk was called back to the stage for an encore, a flexible, pristine performance of the 13th variation from Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations. Oddly, he repeated the first section of the variation with additional ornamentation, as called for in the score; he didn't repeat the second section.

The closing work on the program was the Stravinsky's complete ballet trouchka, composed in 1910-11 and revised in 1947, which was the version performed here. (The program book contained a lengthy footnote discussing the various of transliterations of the title, finally giving up and admitting that you should spell it as you please. The French transliteration used here was Stravinsky and impresario Diaghilev's original choice.) The solo piano, played here with steely brilliance by veteran Cleveland Orchestra pianist Joela Jones, represents the puppet Pétrouchka. Russian folksong permeates the work, sometimes quoted explicitly, other times just in essence. Multiple simultaneous tonalities abound. The orchestration is a showcase for the orchestra's soloists, most notably the flute (Joshua Smith) and trumpet (the tireless Michael Sachs). Susanna Mälkki's performance was vibrant, overtly dramatic, sometimes almost raw (in a good way!), in contrast to Boulez's ice-cooled analytical approach. Mälkki's reading was theatrical; it made one long for Michel Fokine's choreography. (What if this could have been one of the Cleveland Orchestra's multi-media presentations!) The Cleveland Orchestra has played trouchka many times; they responded to her interpretation. At the end, there was a sustained ovation.

In 2016 Susanna Mälkki becomes the chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, with other upcoming performances upcoming in significant concert halls and opera houses. On the basis of this concert, she should be invited back to Cleveland, and she deserves a leading international career.

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