“Light in the summer, dark in the winter”

It seemed appropriate that on a cold night in Seattle, with the longest day of the year coming soon, the Finnish pianist Antii Siirala would be in town for a piano recital at the University of Washington. The recital was the second in the President’s Piano Series.

Siirala, a young, not quite thirty year old pianist, was preceded by a personal message from Finland’s Seattle consulate. The consulate mused about Finland, independence from Russia, and of course Sibelius.  As you would expect, Sibelius was well represented on the program.  Sibelius’ piano music is plentiful but is overshadowed by his popular symphonies and tone poems. However, the Finish composer Kaija Saariaho also figured into the evening’s program.  An absence of Finland’s greatest composer and FInland’s most promising composer from a performance by a Finnish pianist would have been unexplainable. 

Sibelius and Saariaho represent Finnish music at its best. Sibelius’ music is steeped in the nationalism and folklore of Finland. By contrast, Saariaho’s music charts the future of classical music. Closely affiliated with Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris, Saariaho’s music often deploys electronic sounds and other scientific techniques. While Saariaho’s music might seem sterile it isn’t. Her sound world is shimmering and ethereal. 

Siirala used Sibelius and Saariaho to fill the center of a program bookended by Beethoven’s Op.109 Sonata and Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes.

Siirala captured the organic beauty of Saariaho’s Ballade. Saariaho’s own comments about the work provide insight. She says “In this short piece I wanted to write music with a melody that grows out of the texture before descending into it again; a work that constantly shifts from a complex multi-layered texture to concentrated single lines and back again.” Siirala’s approach was unforced. The music unfolded naturally under his fingers. He conveyed the work’s driving intensity while also underscoring it’s brittleness.

From Saariaho, the pianist transitioned beautifully, without interruption, to four works for piano by Jean Sibelius. The absence of a break, united Saariaho’s Ballade with Sibelius’ Reverie Op.58 No.1; Scherzino Op.58, No.2; Romance

Op.24, No.2; and a piano transcription of the popular Finlandia.

He gave Finlandia a bold performance. For me, the appeal of the orchestral version of Finlandia is the contrasts between different sections of the orchestra. Siirala’s performance was dramatic, capturing the struggle and triumph of the Fins against the Russians. Siirala filled out his performance of the work with plenty of color and contrast. 

After a break, Siirala came back and performed Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes. Chopin’s Preludes are one of the finest collections of romantic piano music ever composed. Like the Sibelius and Saariaho pieces in the first half, the preludes are atmospheric pieces. There is a prelude for each key. The preludes conjure up different sensations ranging from melancholy to joy.

Like the composer’s etudes, the preludes are a test of a pianist’s virtuosity. They challenge the dexterity and skill of even the most accomplished pianists. But, unlike the etudes, the preludes are highly emotional. Being able to perform the preludes with technical brilliance and emotional honesty is no easy accomplishment. Siirala made the feat look and sound easy.

Tuesday’s program accentuated Siirala’s ability to explain sometimes abstract musical material with uncompromising technique and a keen appreciation of beauty, emotion and interpretation. Even the Beethoven sonata, which adheres to traditional forms (sonata allegro, scherzo, and theme and variation) is possessed with an indescribable beauty. Siirala’s upward advance through the classical ranks seems undeniable. On a cold, dark night in Seattle, the audience got to hear a young pianist on the rise.

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