The Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm was set up 15 years ago to bring together the music of all the countries that circle the Baltic, so it would have been remiss of it not to celebrate the big birthday of one of its number this year: Finland’s centenary as an independent nation. And where better to look than the music of Jean Sibelius to mark the occasion – not one of his more obviously nationalist works, as one might have thought, but his Seventh Symphony, played by one of the leading orchestras from his homeland, the Helsinki Philharmonic.

Susanna Mälkki © Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio
Susanna Mälkki
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

This is music that these Finnish musicians will have played countless times, yet under the baton of Susanna Mälkki, who became the orchestra’s chief conductor only last year, they brought a freshness and enlightenment – it’s one of those rare pieces that seems to invite new insight with every performance. So continuous is its progression and musical development that Sibelius leaves no holes open for the unwary conductor, but the tempo relationships are crucial to make it all flow, and here Mälkki was in total control, revealing also how, despite changes of inner momentum and note length, the pulse remains remarkably stable from beginning to end. She took a more interventionist approach to textural detail than some conductors, an example being the way the violas held back on vibrato in their first main melody, with warmth and sheen being gradually added as the theme built up through the whole string section. And the horn whoop that introduces the string coda was given rare prominence, making the final arrival at the long withheld tonic note more inevitable than usual.

Susanna Mälkki, Simon O'Neill and the Helsinki Philharmonic © Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio
Susanna Mälkki, Simon O'Neill and the Helsinki Philharmonic
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

The other work on this programme at Swedish Radio’s intimate, 1200-seater concert venue, Berwald Hall, was quite different: Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Indeed, Sibelius and Mahler discovered their symphonic incompatibility when they famously met, the Finn claiming all the music should derive from a single motif, the Austrian counter-arguing that the symphony should be “like the world – it should contain everything”. A symphony in all but name (had Mahler not reputedly been suspicious of calling it his Ninth), Das Lied certainly encompasses much of life’s experience. Wide-ranging enough, indeed, that one felt it was almost too big for the venue. Sibelius’ orchestra had fitted snugly, but Mahler’s larger, brasher sound world felt as though it needed more space to breathe, a sense that was heightened by the difficulty with which the two soloists sometimes struggled to be heard. Admittedly Mahler doesn’t make it easy for his tenor on his first entry in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, and for all his Heldentenor bravura Simon O’Neill seemed often buried by the waves of orchestral sound coming from behind him. When the acoustic allowed him to be heard, though, the result was an expressive and word-attentive reading of his three songs, ideally needing just a little more baritonal weight perhaps to balance the reediness of his timbre.

Gerhild Romberger, Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic © Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio
Gerhild Romberger, Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

O’Neill’s opposite number Gerhild Romberger fared better on the balance stakes. A true contralto, this German-based concert singer (opera doesn’t appear to figure in her repertoire) brought dark poignancy to Mahler’s vocal writing, just sounding a little less refined when stretched by the part’s upper limits. Der Abschied, though, hit the spot, with singing of searching power and emotional pull, matched throughout the work by suave yet visceral playing from the Helsinki musicians under Mälkki’s unswervingly well-judged direction.