Among major conductors today, Susanna Mälkki has the rare distinction to have approached the mainstream repertoire mostly after having been immersed in today’s avant-garde as music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain (2006-2013). I admit feeling disappointed finding out that her return to the podium of the New York Philharmonic, for a subscription series, would include Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. One would have expected her to conduct, if not a cutting edge first audition, at least one of the many less interpreted 20th-century masterpieces. Selecting the overplayed Tchaikovsky just because conservative subscribers need to listen to it once every season, seemed a terrible waste of possibilities.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

Mea culpa. It was a memorable rendition of this warhorse, not so much attributable to Mälkki and the orchestra, but due to the fantastic playing of Baiba Skride. The young violinist has an incredible way of naturally engaging the listener’s emotions while transcending with ease the most challenging demands of the score. Her performance was not adrenaline driven, not in-your-face virtuosic, but one of uncommon sensuality and warmth. There were moments in the Canzonetta and in the first movement’s cadenza, where the violin’s “voice” seemed to belong to one of those melancholic heroines that populate Russian literature. Skride’s bittersweet dialogues with Anthony McGill (clarinet) and Mindy Kaufmann (flute) were heartfelt but, otherwise, the orchestra’s contribution was pedestrian. The ensemble had difficulties following the soloist’s free-flowing arabesques and there was a general impression of insufficient rehearsal that will hopefully be attenuated in the next couple of performances.

The second part of the evening started with Helix, a brief work from 2005 by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The opus is a single accelerando, from the initial gongs followed by a slow melody, intoned by a piccolo and a contrabassoon, to the abrupt, full orchestra finale. As Salonen suggestively observed in his notes, “the material is being pushed through constantly narrowing concentric circles until the music reaches a point where it has to stop as it has nowhere to go”. Helix is a mathematical construct using a strict set of rules, a modern equivalent of a Baroque composition. Relying on his remarkable experience as a conductor, the composer enjoyed immersing himself in the orchestral sound and toying with its components, all within the framework of the rules.

Salonen and Mälkki have a lot in common, from a similar education to their special relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where the former is Conductor Laureate and the latter has been recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor. Mälkki’s understanding of the composer’s intentions is probably unparalleled. She imbued the music with propulsive force, controlling with lucidity every timbral detail, and keeping the colorful textures limpid. It was an outstanding performance. Acknowledging the applauses, Mälkki modestly lifted the score from its stand, showing it to the public.

Considering the mostly Nordic facets of this performance – Finnish conductor, Finnish and Russian composers, Latvian soloist – one could have expected a version of La Mer invoking a Baltic seascape rather than a Mediterranean one. However, the interpretation had all the warmth that a Cartesian Debussy was willing to pour into his music. Mälkki again proved to be a master of orchestral tapestry spinning. She “painted” the musical colors using different types of “brushes”, paying attention to small details and maintaining, at the same time, the cohesiveness of the overall picture, especially in the first of the three movements, “From Dawn till Noon on the Sea”. For a conductor cast in the Boulezian mold, clarity of textures was the tantamount goal. The orchestra responded very well to Mälkki’s demands, the overall playing of the woodwinds being as good as any other time in recent memory.

Despite still persistent prejudices, there is no doubt that Susanna Mälkki has, at this point in her career, the technical skill to conduct anything she chooses. There are obviously going to be works for which she feels a special affinity but that’s true for almost everyone else. Listeners should rush to attend any of the performances she is leading.