Perfect Finnish to a memorable outing



Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall


If the name Erik Tawaststjerna sounds familiar, that is because he was the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' most important biographer.

Erik T. Tawaststjerna is his pianist son, who is head of piano studies in Helsinki's Sibelius Academy. Very, appropriately, the first half of the younger Tawaststjerna's piano recital was devoted to Finnish music.

Two of Magnus Lindberg's six Jubilees opened the evening, immersing the ears with plangent chords and sequences of fluid running notes. Although atonal in conception, there was an unusual warmth to the Sixth Jubilee, which dissolved into the fidgety triplets of the third Jubilee, almost a study of virtuosic fingerwork.

The survey of miniatures continued into Sibelius' five Esquisses (Sketches), his last works for the piano, contemporaneous with the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. If the first and fifth of these resembled bagatelles, it was three central pieces - titled Winter Scene, Forest Lake and Forest Song - that came across as granite-like fragments hewn from his mighty symphonies and tone poems.

The austere harmonies and chilling demeanour of the themes were classic Sibelius, persuasively brought out by a specialist who has recorded the composer's complete piano output.

Altogether lighter was Sibelius' own transcription of his popular strings hit, Valse Triste, from incidental music to the play Kuolema. A gentle waltz rhythm, melancholic melody and spectral swirling figures contributed to its sickly sweet scent. Far from being the unwitting salon favourite, this was a work about death.

Despite Tawaststjerna's ardent advocacy on the keyboard, one somehow misses those sobbing strings.

The first half concluded with Einojuhani Rautavaara's Second Sonata (1970), also known as the Fire Sermon. Its three movements were tonal. Aggressive ostinatos in the first movement were reminiscent of Bartok even if hints of melody were allowed to escape from the cauldron, contrasted with the lyricism of the slow movement which had acerbic stings of its own. A furious fugue completed the 10-minute piece, distinguished by striking chordal resonances by allowing the strings to go undampered for a few more seconds.

Familiar music occupied the second half, beginning with the Six Musical Moments Of Franz Schubert. Within these short intimate pieces, the Austrian composer invested a whole world of moods and emotions, which Tawaststjerna keenly brought out.

The tensions and inner angst of his Lieder were never far away from the song-like numbers, contrasted by the polka-rhythm of No. 3 (a popular encore), Bach- like figurations of No. 4 and the outright fury of No. 5. It was the longing nostalgia of the final piece, wonderfully captured, which made this outing memorable.

The Fireworks in Chopin's "Heroic" Polonaise (Op. 53) were the sonorous antidote to too much pensiveness, and Tawaststjerna's stunning control, in the stampeding octave sequence as the music threatened to boil over, was one to be remembered.

His encore of Sibelius' Finlandia, in a gratifyingly blustery transcription by the composer, full of chords, octaves and tremolos - provided the perfect Finnish finish.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'Perfect Finnish to a memorable outing'. Print Edition | Subscribe