That piece is too famous for its own good and is often played with ineffective sentimentality. But under Mälkki’s baton, and with this orchestra — Sibelius’s sound world etched in its bones — “Finlandia” was newly disarming, modestly dignified in its touching harmonies and iron-willed fanfares.
It was a delivery reminiscent of the program’s opener, “Lemminkäinen’s Return,” the fourth legend from Sibelius’s “Lemminkäinen Suite,” based on the “Kalevala,” Finland’s national epic. A brief finale to a long work, the “Return” is all climax, but Mälkki maintained a level head, unleashing a bit of fiery folk aggression here and there, but for the most part emphasizing color and letting it bloom with grandeur that was assured rather than insistent.
Saariaho’s flute concerto “L’Aile du Songe,” from 2001, was a quietly personal touch of programming: Mälkki, who like Saariaho lives in Paris, is a friend and eminent interpreter of her music. And for the Carnegie performance, Mälkki was joined by another previous collaborator, the flutist Claire Chase, in the solo part. (Those two recently brought Felipe Lara’s excellent Double Concerto, which had premiered in Helsinki, to the New York Philharmonic.)
The flute — human, elemental — has been one of Saariaho’s favored instruments, for which she has written some of her most dreamily poetic music. Here, it sings in brief phrases above suspended textures that aren’t melodies per se, but that build to broadly expressed gestures.
In the second movement, the soloist vocalizes alongside notated playing, which Chase dispatched with her trademark theatricality. She and the Finns were satisfyingly united in their treatment of some of the work’s most exquisite details: downward glissandos that evoke a quickly passing, or perhaps dying, flare of sound; a celestial slow fade that ascends yet ebbs, in the end, to inaudibility.