‘The sea, blue, silent and sunlit, draws me up towards the horizon,’ wrote the German poet and lawyer Karl Mayer (1786–1870) in his poem ‘Memory of the Baltic Sea’. The natural beauty of the Baltic Sea countries also serves as inspiration for the first programme of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. With ‘Baltic Sea Landscapes’, Kristjan Järvi and the orchestra take the listener on a musical journey to countries that have been connected to each other since ancient times through their harbour cities, introducing us to their wonderful composers.
Jean Sibelius is probably the most famous Finnish composer. He received piano and violin lessons at an early age, studied at the conservatory in Helsinki and later moved to Berlin and Vienna. Sibelius campaigned for the national Finnish movement, which called for the foundation of an independent state. His ‘Karelia Suite’ op. 11 (1893) is a declaration of faith in his homeland and addresses the theme of Karelia, which was claimed by Sweden, Russia and the Finnish people. Today the different parts of the population live in peace in this lake- and forest-covered region of North-Eastern Europe. It is not far to the architecturally beautiful St. Petersburg. In 1919, Sergei Prokofiev’s First Symphony op. 25 was premiered there. The compact piece became known as the ‘Classical Symphony’. In it, the composer honours his great example Joseph Haydn by using his tonal language. The music represented a musical turning point, since the work declared its opposition to the enormous Romantic symphony. Prokofiev’s homeland was also experiencing upheaval at the time, as it transformed from a Tsarist Empire into the Soviet Republic.
After the October Revolution in 1917, many Russian artists left their home, since cultural life still had to establish a new order there. Opportunities arose in Europe and the USA. Prokofiev also moved there and established his reputation as a pianist and composer on the basis of his Piano Concerto No. 3 op. 26. It was premiered in Chicago in 1921. Prokofiev practised no other piece as intensively on the piano as this one. This concerto, he once explained, ‘is known to every child, so every passage has to be right.’ High-energy moments contrast with lyrical elements. The Petersburg composer and musicologist Boris Assafiev declared that this work ‘radiates with the Russian understanding of the significance and value of art.’ Prokofiev never described himself as an émigré, remaining a citizen of his country and later returning to the Soviet Union. On April 23 this year, Baltic Sea Philharmonic together with Kristjan Järvi and Alexander Toradze will honour his 125th birthday with a concert in Moscow.
By contrast, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was a musical individualist, even during his training at the conservatory in Tallinn. He initially composed avant-garde pieces, which were often received with incomprehension. His study of medieval music and religion later led to a peaceful, tonal language. In 1980, Pärt emigrated to Vienna and Berlin and quickly became a cult figure of New Music in the West. He only returned to his homeland in 2008. The orchestral piece Swansong, which was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in 2014, is based on Pärt’s early composition ‘Littlemore Tractus’. In it, he set the text by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–1890) to music. The theologian, poet and thinker was an influential figure in England. Swansong is therefore a hymnic, pensive piece.
The Lithuanian Gediminas Gelgotas has enjoyed a special partnership with the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic for many years. Most recently, the orchestra performed Mountains. Waters. (Freedom). The premiere was on 12 September 2015 in the Tonhalle, Zurich. Now the Baltic Sea Philharmonic is performing the impressive piece for the first time, with its dark colour tones and voluminous, natural composition. Gelgotas was inspired by pop music. In his piece, he aims to ‘explore the enormous latitudes around us and inside us. It was my idea and desire to create a sound and a musical structure in which all processes run as economically as possible and in which its inner elements constantly transform into new figures.’
Igor Stravinsky composed the Firebird ballet at the young age of 27. The impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned the piece for his innovative dance company Ballets Russes (with dancers from St. Petersburg and Moscow), thereby showing great trust in the young composer. And rightly so, since in 1910, the premiered ballet, based on two old Russian fairy tales, was a huge success. The public was electrified by the orchestral magnificence of the piece. The Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina, the Russian dancer and choreographer Michail Fokin, and the stage set presenting the enchanted garden in which the golden apples grow, were especially impressive.
The music was also popular in concert halls in the form of three later orchestral suites, offering ‘best of’ versions in different lengths and orchestral constellations. Kristjan Järvi has chosen the last of these, from 1945. The contrast between the dazzling ‘Infernal Dance’ of the evil wizard Kashchei and the dreamy ‘Lullaby’ is enormous. Naturally, the story recounts how the young Prince Ivan wins over his beloved princess. He is aided by a mysterious firebird. It is truly magical music that unfolds an almost archaic power in the enormous crescendo of the Finale. ‘Look at him: He is a man on the eve of his fame,’ Diaghilev said of Stravinsky during ballet rehearsals. His prophecy was fulfilled.