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29.9.2015 Feed

Interview with Hannu Lintu regarding the FRSO’s programme on the 2nd of August 2015

SIBELIUS: The Oceanides (Original version)
SIBELIUS: Violin concerto (Original version)
AHO: Symphony No. 16 (Premiere)

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

Elina Vähälä, violin
Virpi Räisänen, mezzosoprano



Sibelius made some radical changes to the first version of his Violin Concerto after its premiere. Isn’t it a bit mean to present an audience with a work that does not bear the composer’s final stamp of approval?

The original version has been included in Breitkopf & Härtel’s new critical edition of the complete Sibelius works, so in a way it’s officially recognised as standing on its own two feet. Elina Vähälä and I both agree that the first movement, particularly, has some magnificently beautiful moments. If we didn’t give our audience a chance to hear this unique music now and then, our picture of Sibelius would not be complete. The character of the third movement became far more shamanistic in its final form. This feature is not so strong in the first version, but there are, by contrast, some lighter passages, rather like in the Humoresques.

The first movement is unusually expansive. In the end Sibelius decided to tighten it up and make it more symphonic –though even in its final form, the movement is a remarkable construct. But I like imagining what would have happened if he’d gone in the opposite direction, further enhancing the movement’s expansive form. I see the first movement of the original version as a sort of enchanting, possible world.

How would you compare the different versions of The Oceanides?

There are, to my mind, quite definitely two Sibelius Oceanides. People have no compunction about playing Beethoven’s Leonore Overture in three different versions, and this is just the same. There are lots of other works we accept in two different versions without turning a hair: Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Schumann’s fourth symphony, and goodness knows how many Stravinsky ballets. I find it fascinating that a masterpiece can lead two lives. Above all, the different versions provide an invaluable window on the creative artist’s mind.

True, the final version of The Oceanides came about because Sibelius began making revisions. Shifting the key from the original D-flat major to the D major of the final version radically changed the nature of the piece. Sibelius was a synesthete, and he, if anyone, was aware of the enormous change brought about by raising the key a semitone. It is no coincidence that, for example, much of Debussy’s La Mer is in D flat: it has a certain depth, darkness and greenness. To me, it’s almost as if the D-flat major version is, so to say, under water and the D-major version above water. D major distances the music in a more Classical direction, whereas the original D-flat version is more modern: its rhythms and his handling of the orchestra once again show that Sibelius could have become a true Expressionist.

Did you have a finger in the pie over Kalevi Aho’s sixteenth symphony?

I’ve conducted Kalevi Aho’s concertos, particularly, in the past few years. The idea of a piece scored for strings and percussion occurred to me almost by chance while I was in Switzerland rehearsing the orchestra for the Clarinet Concerto before the soloist arrived. I was taking the strings slowly through their part, and all of a sudden I realised that Aho writes for strings in a way that is fantastically rich and vibrant. And it sprang to mind that Kalevi could compose something for the FRSO – something with an orchestration similar to that of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. I put this orchestration idea to him with a request for a concert curtain raiser lasting twenty minutes at most. In due course, Kalevi delivered a score that turned out to be a fifty-minute symphony, and one with a mezzo-soprano into the bargain.

I like the powerful emotions in Kalevi’s music. It is very deeply expressive; it speaks to the listener and is gratifyingly challenging. Added to which, his orchestrations always have some unusual instrumental timbres. Enriching the string texture in this symphony is a host of special percussion instruments: things like a binsasara, dobaci, darabuka and moon gong. Many of Kalevi’s big orchestral works have textures operating at many levels. But just recently, I’ve noticed a novel tendency towards clarity in his music. In this work, this clarity is born specifically of the marriage between strings and percussions. But Symphony No. 16 is technically difficult to play.

What thoughts does the fact that a composer in the present day and age – Kalevi Aho – is still a consummate symphonist arouse in you?

I must say I always prick up my ears when I hear a new symphony is being played somewhere, because the symphonic tradition means a lot to me. The “symphony” is a format affording endless different options while at the same time providing a strong sense of form. And it still has infinite potential to explore. Was the symphony ousted because of its name or because of its structure? Debussy, Schönberg and others placed it in a questionable light, but while many 20th-century composers were rejecting it, there were those who chose otherwise: Sibelius, Nielsen, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams, and so on. And we still have composers here in Finland today – Aho and, say, Kaipainen and Rautavaara – who are specifically great symphonists.

Interview with Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo