Jukka-Pekka Saraste took the audience on three Nordic journeys in Rotterdam, including one with Boris Giltburg in a dazzling rendition of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. The Finnish conductor transported the audience to the country of his birth: first, through an ethereal soundscape by Kaija Saariaho; and later, with a sweeping performance of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste © WDR | Thomas Kost
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© WDR | Thomas Kost

Instead of Nico Muhly’s Mixed Messages, Saraste turned the programme into a completely Scandinavian affair. He opened instead with Kaija Saariaho’s Le Ciel d’Hiver. Adapted from the middle movement of her symphonic work Orion, this piece offered both an adventurous soundscape and a fine-tuning to the Rotterdam Phil’s vibrant wind colours.

With rigorously kept tempi and rare, expressive outbursts, Saraste led the orchestra through Saariaho's hypnotic world. The piano’s notes glistened mysteriously like far away stars. The celesta’s punctuated notes and the piccolo contributed to Saariaho’s trademark ethereal musical cosmos. This was quite an unusual opening, yet an effective intro with its unusual spectral texture.

After his sensational debut two years ago, Giltburg returned to Rotterdam for another unforgettable performance, this time with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. As he manoeuvered the orchestra through the Allegro molto moderato, Giltburg demonstrated his technical skills. The soloist hunched forward over the keys, slightly theatrical in his sideways swaying and nodding of the head, but ever so elegant. He displayed his virtuosity in the cadenza, where through defined phrasing, he distinctly charged each of Grieg’s notes. His pedal use generated a sonorous depth complementing the cellos.

In the Adagio, Saraste sustained a simmering suspense from the strings. As Giltburg demonstrated a subdued tone, a calm took hold of the audience. In the concluding movement, the pianist charged through the manic passages. The flute solo contrasted effectively with necessary lightness. For the encore, Giltburg returned with a piano transcription of a Sibelius waltz.

After the break, Saraste led the orchestra through Sibelius’ Second Symphony. In the opening movement, the strings produced a rarified transparency that evoked images of icy winds blowing over snowy plains. Saraste conducted like a reserved gentleman: always in control with but a few wild gestures and exuding a collected calm, even during Sibelius’ fiercest moments. He expertly layered the composer’s icy tension. Visibly engrossed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s sound, Saraste sustained a fragile suspense in his ceaseless momentum as he continued with the second movement Tempo andante. Here Saariaho’s soundscape connected to Sibelius.

In the Vivacissimo the musical snow flurries turned into an outright blizzard. On the oboe, Remco de Vries offered a strikingly nuanced contrast to the upbeat energy. Sibelius composed this work in Italy, and in this rapid third movement the cheerfulness of Italian opera resonated. Without interruption, Saraste launched the triumphant theme of the final movement. Brass pulsated and with their glow established a golden hue. Basses continued to throb. Again the strings produced that rarified sound from the opening movement. Cellos produced a resounding depth as, with great suspense, Saraste led the orchestra through Sibelius’ finale.

Besides Giltburg’s superlative play, Saraste’s Sibelius swept you off your feet.