Wouldn’t it be great if the long gone masters could still write music today? Impossible, of course, but sometimes discoveries are made that provide us with never-heard-before gems of their making. In 2015, a lost piece by Stravinsky was found in a library in St Petersburg, written 107 years earlier for a memorial concert for his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. Until the recent rediscovery, it had only been played on that occasion, but now it is finding its way into the orchestra repertoire.

When the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by their very own Santtu-Matias Rouvali, gets the chance to play this “new” work by Stravinsky, they do so with great sensitivity. Funeral Song begins with soft double basses that immediately set a somewhat mysterious mood. As Stravinsky lets individual instruments take turns in singing their own melodies of farewell, we got to hear what accomplished musicians GSO consists of. The music changed between personal grief, outbursts of despair and sections of sweet, light, fond memories. The piece ended with a soft chord played out several times. It was both beautiful and sad, with a feeling of irrevocable conclusion.

Jennifer Koh © Juergen Frank
Jennifer Koh
© Juergen Frank

Esa-Pekka Salonen's violin concerto started with the soloist, Jennifer Koh, on her own, instantly given the chance to show her virtuosity. She had a clearness and bite in her sound that made it project very well. The orchestra gradually joined her, forming a curious landscape around her rapidly moving melodies. The first movement glided seamlessly into the second via a lonely high note on the solo violin, and the tension rose: I caught myself holding my breath.

The second movement took us away from the rapid motions and brought us to a complete calm. It’s like realising that the world around you stopped spinning, only you didn’t notice that it ever did until now. The timpani played a soft, calm pulse, like a resting heart. At the end of the second movement the violin was alone again, back in the high register, fading out into silence.

After the serenity of the second movement, we were cast into another world. Koh’s playing here was powerful but not aggressive: it had a playfulness to it, but in a wild way. One of the high points of the entire evening was when the orchestra was joined by a drum kit, playing a duet with the violin. It was irresistibly cheeky and fun, and for a moment I almost thought I was at a rock concert.

Salonen has managed to cover an incredibly wide range of expressions in this concerto and the changes can be sudden. This poses a challenge for the soloist, but Koh showed that she’s a versatile performer and is able to adapt fast with the music. In the last movement Koh shifted back to the lyric sound. Towards the end of the concerto the music is calm and soothing. Koh finished the concerto on another high note, which she chose not to fade out but to expand in volume, making the ending clear and decisive.

Koh then treated the audience to an intimate and elegant encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s Violin Partita no. 2.

If the programme started with Stravinsky’s least famous piece, it finished with his most well-known one: The Rite of Spring, the ballet music that famously caused the premiere audience to riot in 1913. The opening bassoon solo started with a gorgeous crescendo on the very first note, as if the bassoonist was sneaking in from the back of the stage. When the first rhythmic section started, it was steady and somewhat moderate, not aggressive but with quite a warm sound from the strings, despite the written dissonance in the repeated chord. Rouvali mastered this infamously difficult piece, with all its time changes, seemingly effortlessly.

Later on, the feeling changed into something more ominous and gradually more aggressive. There was a heaviness and depth to the sound, but it did not interrupt the flow of the music. When the music was at its loudest, it was like the sound filled all of the space in the room. In a way, I could imagine what the audience in 1913 might have felt: it is impossible not to get affected by this music, and if you are unprepared it might not feel pleasant, but quite intrusive. It’s raw power without mercy that you cannot ignore. The loud sections were well balanced by the lyric parts and the solos, which served as well-needed contrasts. As the last chord rang out, it summed up an evening of outstanding musicianship from start to finish.


This review is part of our student reviewers programme in collaboration with the Academy of Music & Drama of the University of Gothenburg.

Reviewed at Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg on 29 March 2019

PROGRAMME

Stravinsky, Funeral Song, Op.5

Salonen, Violin Concerto

Stravinsky, Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Bach, Violin partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV1004: Sarabande (Encore)

PERFORMERS

Gothenburg Symphony

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Conductor

Jennifer Koh, Violin