The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Paris: City of Light series stepped several decades out of its 1900-50 remit with Henri Dutilleux’s Correspondances, his cycle of five songs in a version arrived at in 2010, although its orchestral palette clearly referenced the designated time-frame. Dutilleux’s text selection – from poems by Rilke and Mukherjee and from letters written by Solzhenitsyn to Mr and Mrs Rostropovich and by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo – provides the composer ample scope for a style that hovers in the shadows between the sensual and the mystical. With its cool tonal purity, Barbara Hannigan’s soprano has the sort of technical accomplishment that implies pitch and timbre without any overstatement. Despite her rather formidable presence, Hannigan was the ideal match for Dutilleux’s elusiveness, and she managed her powers of inflection and phrasing with astonishing intensity and control. Dutilleux’s music expresses the text’s clash of the practical and the visionary with eerie precision, intimately realised by the Philharmonia players.
Mitsuko Uchida in Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto was in the same intense league, although the music’s stylistic mix, with jazz predominant, also suits her capacity for explosive humour and vivid attack. There’s a seductive elasticity to her playing that worked its charm in the first movement, and the way in which she barged into the coda after the harp’s remote cadenza – one of Ravel’s great inspirations – decisively summed up the music’s idiom. She could have drifted forever in the slow movement’s dreamy long solo, played with impeccable judgement, but was beautifully extricated by tactful ministrations from the woodwinds, and her command of the finale’s fireworks was absolute. After such exuberance, her tiny encore, the second of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces (Opus 19), sounded even more cryptic than usual. The singularities of Uchida’s playing – grace, wit, engagement – were in plentiful supply, and her chamber-like rapport with the Orchestra was brilliantly brokered by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The Svengali element in Salonen’s conducting was much in evidence in the semi-staged performance of L’Enfant et les sortlilèges. Even with props, costumes and projections, the Royal Festival Hall isn’t the best place for a work as interactive as Ravel and Colette’s lyric fantasy, and director Irina Brown had her work cut out bringing the many vignettes of fauna, furniture, torn wallpaper, sums, et al into focus, especially in a piece dependent on cartoon-like visual gags for its impact.
As a result Chloé Briot, for much of the time placed in the chorus seats behind the Orchestra, didn’t have that much opportunity to register the child’s naughtiness, and the redemptive close lacked that sudden hit of poignancy. Salonen worked wonders in keeping detail intimate and characterful, and the nine singers were brilliant in bringing the 21 ‘characters’ to life, with memorable contributions from Elodie Méchain, Omo Bello, François Piolino and, again, Barbara Hannigan, and the Philharmonia Voices entered into the spirit of things especially as the chorus of numbers. Lighting and projections were atmospheric and suitably menacing, but as a whole the performance lacked wonderland magic.