Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Leila Josefowicz, violin
February 6, 2020
Sibelius: En saga, Op. 9
Knussen: Violin Concerto, Op. 30
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
Ever the dynamic podium presence, Susanna Mälkki brought to The Cleveland Orchestra a pair of imposing yet less-trodden Sibelius scores, bookending a seminal 21st-centruy concerto from the late Oliver Knussen. Sibelius’ early tone poem En saga is the work of a confident young composer self-assuredly finding his voice, not heard at Severance Hall since a 1965 performance under George Szell. Undulating strings gave this single-movement essay an epic sense of scale, countered by thornier winds with the composer masterfully spinning a tale worthy its saga designation. A particularly memorable theme was articulated through the burnished, musky warmth of the violas and cellos, while a solo from clarinetist Daniel McKelway pointed towards a somber end: a mere whisper in the strings, fading away with remarkable control at the ppp dynamic level.
Knussen is a man who had a wonderfully fruitful relationship with TCO up to his untimely passing in 2018, both as composer and conductor. His 2002 violin concerto received its second Cleveland hearing, this time with champion of the contemporary violin repertoire Leila Josefowicz. Orchestral bells opened the work in striking fashion, with rapid runs high in the violin’s stratosphere. Despite the modernist dissonances, Josefowicz delivered with a luminous clarity. In many regards, this is a Romantic work at heart, a persuasion most pronounced in the resonant lyricism of the central Aria. The closing Gigue thrilled in its intricate web of rhythmic intricacies, negotiated with aplomb and finesse by all.
While the influences of the late Romantic milieu abound in Sibelius’ First Symphony, its opening of a solo clarinet – gorgeously played by Afendi Yusuf – over a rumbling timpani is pure Sibelius, unmistakably the composer’s own rarefied language, even in this inaugural symphonic effort. The strings entered in their celestial radiance for the movement proper with the music lush and rewarding. A dose of Nordic chill was introduced in the development, and perhaps it was Mälkki’s shared heritage with the composer that gave her such innate Sibelian fluency in this thoroughly convincing performance.
The endless melody of the Andante could easily be mistaken for a Tchaikovsky slow movement: he we saw not the forward-thinking Sibelius we would later come to know, but one firmly – and comfortably – rooted in the 19th-century. The scherzo was in turn a nod to Bruckner, and the orchestra remained in tight cohesion even at vigorous speed. A slow, measured introduction to the finale was seeped in melancholy and tragedy, yet in due course gave way to a boisterous, unrelenting affair, occasionally contrasted by a rich melody that resided deep in the strings. The brash coda proceeded with confident swagger, only to turn inward at the last moment to close in unexpected anticlimax.