CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 30 NOVEMBER 2006
Joonas Kokkonen: Symphony No. 3. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5. (Sakari Oramo, cond.)
From the heavy-metal cello quartet Apocalyptica to the experimental accordion stylings of Kimmo Pohjonen, Finland has made more than its quota of contributions to the world's storehouse of peculiar music. Among the country's most recent inventions is the Complaints Choir—the brainchild of a pair of Finnish artists who, in two-week workshops held in various European cities, convene amateur choruses that write and perform songs made up of their own members' grievances. Sample the results and you might find yourself singing along with such lines as: "People eat my biscuits / When we have a spot of tea. / They never share their biscuits. / No one appreciates me."
Finnish music of a less petulant sort comes to northeast Ohio this weekend, as Helsinki born Sakari Oramo conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in the Third Symphony of his countryman Joonas Kokkonen. The composer's not particularly well known this side of the Atlantic—most recordings of his work are on Scandinavian labels. Short of heading either to Severance Hall or overseas, the only place you're likely to hear the Kokkonen Third is on a release from Sweden's BIS. And that CD, led by Ulf Söderblom, gives a rather different impression of the symphony than Oramo's performance.
Oramo's version often sparkles with orchestral colors—bright woodwind exclamations here, a protracted fizz of percussion there—that Söderblom tends to mute. At the same time, Söderblom's reading has a dramatic tension that Oramo lacks. The former might prompt you to reach toward Shostakovich and Mahler for points of comparison, though Kokkonen's writing is far more compressed. Oramo's version is much lighter: a work that's attractive, accessible, but not altogether unified.
Something similar is true of Oramo's version of the Mahler Fifth, which followed the Kokkonen after one of those intermissions that come so early in the program they seem more obligatory than refreshing. There were more arresting details in Thursday evening's performance than I can catalogue here. One might cite a couple of examples just in the second trio of the giant central Scherzo: the marvelously ghostly rendition of the pizzicato passage about halfway through the section and the hair-raising interjections of the whip toward the end. Yet at times Oramo's Mahler lacked organic unity. In the first movement, in particular, Oramo's adjustments to tempo seemed not to evolve from musical necessity, but to be disproportionate and imposed from without, as if the symphony were the soundtrack to a film we were not privileged to see.
Yet, if Oramo's interpretation isn't as coherent as the best recorded versions, it's not by any means a bad representation of this Mahler masterpiece. One might sum it up in this way: "There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." Thus spoke another famous Finn. First name: Huckleberry.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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