A conductor born and bred in Helsinki, Susanna Mälkki grew up to the accompaniment of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2004 she received her first invitation to conduct the orchestra of which she would become Chief Conductor in autumn 2016. Her path to the conductor’s podium passed through the cello classes of the Sibelius Academy and the Edsberg Institute in Stockholm, however, and the position of principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. She made her conducting breakthrough in 1999, at the Helsinki Festival, and her first regular conducting appointment was as Artistic Director of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. Her Music Directorship of the celebrated Ensemble Intercontemporain (2006–2013) established her as a profound interpreter of music of the present day.
Susanna Mälkki has conducted the world’s finest orchestras. In season 2017-18 she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera season and took over as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Musical America voted her Conductor of the Year 2017.
Since giving his debut concert in 1997, when he was only 12, István Várdai has won more prizes and distinctions than virtually any other cellist in the present century, culminating in first prize in the ARD in Munich in 2014. He has also been the recipient of the Franz Liszt and Prima Primissima awards in recognition of his work on behalf of the music of his native Hungary. He has an extremely tight work schedule and according to bachtrack.com statistics has given over 70 performances a year, making him by far the busiest cellist in the world, in repertoire that includes both chamber music and great concertos and anything from Baroque to modern. Since 2016, he has played a Stradivari built in 1673 that once belonged to Jacqueline du Pré and Lynn Harrell and is now on loan to him by an anonymous benefactor. The thought of playing the same instrument as du Pré has, he says, given him the confidence and emotional support required for large-scale works.
Sergei Prokofiev: Sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra
The Sinfonia concertante was one of the last works to be completed by Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). Life was not easy for him at the time: Stalin was breathing down his neck, he was ill, and his first cello concerto had been a flop. The first version of the concerto, performed in 1938, had been torn to bits by the critics and its solo part deemed impossible to play. Not until Prokofiev heard the young Rostropovich play it nearly a decade later did he feel encouraged to write a new version. Having sweated over it for five years, he finally came up with a separate new work born of material from the concerto and premiered in 1952. Despite its somewhat lukewarm reception, Prokofiev was satisfied. The Sinfonia concertante nowadays belongs to the concert canon and the original concerto is regarded as a work in its own right, despite its partly-shared roots. Not being himself a cellist, Prokofiev sought the help of Rostropovich in writing the solo part. The result was a work virtually made to measure for the great virtuoso and one of the most monumental items in literature for the cello.
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Images of flailing fists, total uproar and policemen brandishing handcuffs while the orchestra continued playing as if nothing untoward were happening abound in the anecdotes, rumours, reports and eye-witness accounts of the premiere of a ballet at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris in May 1913. The ballet in question? The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). The opening bars on a solo bassoon were already drowned by shouts from the audience. The choreographer Nijinsky had to indicate the dancers’ steps as Diaghilev dipped the lights in an attempt to restore order, but all in vain. Stravinsky took refuge behind the stage. The Parisians nevertheless flocked to subsequent performances and behaved themselves with customary restraint. One reason for the opening-night chaos was not, said some, Stravinsky’s music but Nijinsky’s provocative “knock-kneed Lolitas jumping up and down”.
Stravinsky had once consulted Nicholas Roerich, a folklore expert, about pagan rites, and in 1908 had already composed two songs about rites of spring. At least a dozen of the melodies in the ballet are based on ancient folk songs and are still recognisable even after Stravinsky’s rhythmic processing.