Berlin in early March is laced with frost, but Monday night's concert at the Philharmonie visited even colder climes when the distinguished Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara had taped birdsong echo from a cluster of loudspeakers poised above the orchestra. Rautavaara's Cantus arcticus (or Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) sends wave upon haunting wave of harmony as an aural backdrop for sundry birdsong, ending with the cacophonous gaggle of "Swans Migrating".
Vladimir Ashkenazy programmed the Canticus as part of his Sibelius series with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, while the performance itself prompted prolonged applause and a modest but appreciative appearance by the composer himself.
The Canticus opens to chirruping woodwinds among the birds, before gently drifting lower strings suggest the slow passage of approaching snow clouds. Rautavaara marks time between the first movement (The Bog) and the second (Melancholy) by having his birds sing unaccompanied, so that, when Melancholy breathes her first sigh, the effect is mesmerising. Rautavaara told me that no major British orchestra has yet tackled the piece, which strikes me as strange, certainly when you consider that broadcast recordings have invariably met with a stream of enthusiastic enquiries.
Monday's performance coincided with a press conference celebrating the relationship between Rautavaara, Ashkenazy, the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester and the Finnish CD label Ondine. Rautavaara, who will celebrate his 70th birthday later this year, is currently putting the finishing touches to a piano concerto (his third) which Ashkenazy will record as both pianist and conductor.
Canticus at the Philharmonie was succeeded by a robust reading of Sibelius's Third Symphony, bracing in the first movement, lilting in the second (which Ashkenazy plays like a sort of wistful valse triste) and, in the third, oscillating between marked mood changes before the onset of a long, propulsive finale. "This is cold music on the outside," Ashkenazy said to me later; "it says a great deal with little fuss, like the Finns themselves. But it has so much here" - and he thrashed his fists towards his heart - "there is such fire inside!"
Some transitions worked better than others, but the spirit was right and the cumulative impact of the reading, impressive.
Lastly, Ashkenazy was joined by the 21-year-old Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto for one of the leanest, coolest and most wilfully phrased accounts of the Violin Concerto I've heard in years.
Ashkenazy saw to it that the first movement was predominantly dark, though Kuusisto's bright, attenuated solo line soared above the greys and blacks like one of Rautavaara's birds. The slow movement was more meditative than passionate, but the finale went well and we were treated to an unaccompanied extra in Barkauskas's wildly syncopated Toccata - a Gidon Kremer speciality. Kuusisto has recorded both works, though in the case of the Sibelius his interpretation varies according to who is on the rostrum. Like Kremer, he's very much a free spirit.Reuse content