Turku Concert Hall's new harp had its first outing in a sold out concert with a diverse programme which varied from the dreamy sounds of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Ballad for harp and strings, Mozart’s lively Concerto for flute and harp and the sinister timbre of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Harpist Päivi Severeide delivered an outstanding show together with Niamh McKenna who joined her in Mozart’s concerto. Conductor Jan Söderblom also made a brilliant job holding the strings together and injected great feeling into these pieces at the same time.

Päivi Severeide © Turku Philharmonic
Päivi Severeide
© Turku Philharmonic

Rautavaara is not only one of Finland's most celebrated composers but is also one of the most performed, both nationally and internationally. His long career included a vast variety of styles from his 1950s neoclassical work and serialism to synthetic period from the 1970s onwards. The main element in his work was the mystical and he saw the composer as a midwife, delivering music from an abstract world of ideas. Rautavaara withdrew his Ballad for harp and strings from his list of compositions in 1973, revising it in 1981. It is one of the examples of his angel themes that occurred in many of his later pieces, such as Angel of Light, Angel of Dusk and Angels and Visitations

The mystical aspect can also be heard in Rautavaara’s Ballad. The piece begins with a cosmic gauze played by the strings. From this sparkling angel dust, the harp appears strumming serene chords. This heavenly atmosphere is broken when the harmony becomes more sinister. At the same time the harpist hits the strings, illustrating Rautavaara’s use of extended playing techniques. After a stormy sequence along comes the soothing consonance which is broken again in a nightmarish interlude. The meeting of an angel can be both graceful and terrifying; in both cases, Severeide showed great skill.

When Mozart composed his Flute and Harp Concerto, using a harp as a solo instrument was considered unusual. On the other hand, Mozart was an extraordinary man. In this double concerto, flute and harp play sometimes play with orchestra, while each acompanies the other in melodic passages. Severeide and McKenna shared an admirable chemistry, working like a well-oiled precision machine, a match made in heaven. In the last movement, the conductor, playing from the first violins, made an extravagant gesture by raising his bow up in the air after the final note. Although this was a fine performance it could have had greater intensity. The calmness of the performance made an impression that erred too much on the safe zone. 

After two fine performances, the best was yet to come. Arnold Schoenberg was the father of the 12-note system of dodecaphonic music, music banned as degenerate art in Nazi Germany. But Verklärte Nacht is one of his early tonal works, almost resembling Johannes Brahms or Richard Wagner, showing few signs of his later modernist work. The music is loaded with overwhelming emotion waiting to burst into a glorious cadenza but is distorted with dissonance. Jan Söderblom conducted a powerful interpretation.

The concert, entitled "Heavenly" was a delightful experience on the whole, but the real shot in the arm was the extreme emotion in the Schoenberg, which made the evening.