Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara is no stranger to the SCO, who premièred his Autumn Gardens in 1999; nor to this concert’s conductor, fellow Finn John Storgårds, who recorded a disc of his works earlier this year. Although not a world première, this was a UK first performance of his Into the Heart of Light for string orchestra. Even in the years when he embraced serialism Rautavaara somehow managed to incorporate its key-avoiding nature into an essentially romantic tonal language. More recently, his philosophy seems to be to live within tonality, but with scant regard for house rules. This makes for a rich musical landscape which keeps the listener guessing. It feels like there is a tonal centre but it would be tricky at certain moments to pin it down. Likewise, major and minor feel almost interchangeable.

Artur Pizarro © Sven Arnstein
Artur Pizarro
© Sven Arnstein

The sound produced by the SCO strings in this 15-minute piece was wonderfully rich when required and also sufficiently strident to match the piece’s more dissonant moments. An eddying motif, shared across the cellos, gave the piece an almost maritime feel. This motif later served as a springboard to launch Su-a Lee into the piece’s only solo moment. Sustained by quiet tremelando strings, Lee soared into the cello’s upper register and, with supreme lyricism, navigated the orchestra to the piece’s conclusion. To the best of my knowledge this piece has yet to be recorded. In light of this performance I’d say that the SCO were strong contenders.

I had read with interest an interview with the evening’s soloist, Portuguese pianist Artur Pizarro, on the SCO’s blog. Amongst other things he described how a concerto soloist often has little warm-up time on the house piano. Observing him as the orchestra opened Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, I noted the handkerchief held in his hands, perhaps to alleviate the effect of the relatively distant but possibly punishing lights. Could he possibly be feeling on edge? This query was soon answered as, the exposition over, he placed his handkerchief on the piano before cheerfully and gracefully beginning the solo part. This concerto’s outer movements exude joyful youth and, during this opening, Pizarro’s fingers bounced off the keys as though to testify to his light touch. The exception to this was the fugal cadenza which had much more gravitas; a young Beethoven hoping to make his mark in Vienna would want to seem capable in that regard. Both Pizarro and the SCO were alive to the movement’s more audacious key changes (such as the one from F to D flat) and subtly highlighted the surprise of the moment.

In contrast to the opening movement’s cadenza, which begins with the left hand, the soaring slow movement’s equivalent is pretty much a right hand affair, almost in the manner of a recitative with very slight orchestral accompaniment. The tense atmosphere here made me lean forward. The serene finish contrasted nicely with the dance-like Rondo. Beethoven, Pizarro and the SCO are to be commended here for illustrating so eloquently that there are many types of cheerfulness. The character of each episode was very distinct. This was a very assured performance and full of character to which the audience responded very warmly.

Conrad Wilson’s very informative programme notes explained how Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2 and Mendelsson’s Symphony no. 5 in D major, “Reformation” shared numbering inaccuracies, both being earlier than the cataloguing suggests. The title reflects the work’s original purpose, the tercentenary of the Augsburg Protestant Confession of 1530. However, problems with its reception by the players caused its cancellation. It was revised and unveiled in 1832 – this time with Mendelssohn conducting.

The work shares with the Beethoven an incongruity between youth and compositional accomplishment. It bears the rigorous counterpoint one might expect of a devotee of Bach. Storgårds and the SCO conveyed superbly the infectious Mendelssohnian energy of this piece. The fuel for much of this was supplied by Matthew Hardy on natural timpani. The fact that these were out of view made their explosive contribution all the greater. The hero of the piece – and audience response bore this out – was Cormac Henry who played the third movement’s extensive flute solo.

In addition to the Lutheran chorale melody “Ein feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress”) this symphony features Johann Gottlieb Naumann’s six-note phrase known as the “Dresden Amen”. Unlike the perhaps more familiar and settled sounding “plagal cadence” amen, this rising affair seems more to be saying, “I agree and it makes me feel optimistic”. And that’s pretty much how I felt at the end of this performance. Although not as popular as other Mendelssohn symphonies, I really enjoyed this and the audience seemed to feel similarly. The lengthy response was very warm and Storgårds and the members of the SCO looked very happy.

****1