“Finnish tango” are two words that you might not expect to see together, yet here we were on a Monday night in the Concertgebouw, listening to exactly that. Violinist Pekka Kuusisto was joined by Iiro Rantala in the third concert of his Robeco Zomerconcerten residency and together they delivered a high-energy performance that found itself somewhere in between jazz, tango and classical music.

Pekka Kuusisto © Sonja Werner
Pekka Kuusisto
© Sonja Werner

Kuusisto’s idiosyncratic style became even more pronounced during this concert: he clearly relished the freedom away from the classical genre. In the past two concerts Kuusisto gave during the Robeco Zomerconcerten his original approach to music was shown to be very successful in classical pieces, as his Paganini and Sibelius were impassioned and memorable. And when Kuusisto is given even more freedom and gets to let loose, especially when playing with a trusted partner such as Rantala, equally great heights are reached.

Whereas tango is often associated with the fiery passions of Southern American cultures, it became very popular in Finland in the early twentieth century. The most notable difference between the Finnish tangos and my preconception of the genre is that Finnish tangos are almost always in minor keys. This might suggest that they are also melancholic and heavy-hearted, but judging from Kuusisto and Rantala’s performance, this is certainly not the case. Of course, Kuusisto is a master in leaving concert-goers with smiles on their faces, and tonight was no different.

Having worked together many times, Kuusisto and Rantala are a duo that know each other through and through. This means that the music is of the highest level, and at the same time you feel like you are at a family gathering just watching two people having a good time making music. The music they played was perfect for this ambience; there was room for improvisation and jokes but the backbone of the music stood upright throughout.

Two of the pieces played this evening were composed by Rantala, including a piano piece inspired by tango called “Uplift” and the encore, which had Kuusisto and Rantala shout as well as play – a fun encore if there ever was one. “Uplift” was an impressive piece; Rantala placed a piece of paper on the strings of the piano which made the music he played sound almost as if coming from an old-time record, a feeling to which the jazzy feel certainly added. Rantala is an exceptionally gifted jazz (and classical) pianist and hearing him play was a joy.

Kuusisto introduced Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story by saying that it ought to have been a tango, and indeed the version played by Rantala and Kuusisto did not disappoint. What followed this was one of the highlights of the evening, however: a performance of the song Nuoruustango that was mesmerizing. One of the musicians’ friends stood up at the end of the piece to sing the lyrics, which only emphasized the dreamy quality of the music. This is perhaps what stood out to me throughout the concert: Finnish tango is not as aggressively passionate as Southern American tango might be, but it is entrancing and certainly alluring. The allure lies more in the subdued and dream-like nature of the pieces, though these dreams are not all quiet and calm. Some pieces were extremely energetic and there were moments when you could not help but tap your feet and bop your head (in another setting dancing would have been more than appropriate) because of how catchy and animated the music was.

The most memorable performance of the evening is one that will stay with me for a long time – Pekka Kuusisto’s solo rendition of Unto Mononen’s Tähdet Meren Yllä. Merely strumming his violin and whistling the beautiful melody Kuusisto proved that sometimes simplicity makes for the best impressions.