In essence, this was the soundworld the concerto inhabited. Cast in a single movement of some 22 minutes, its pensive outer sections frame a more animated, but dynamically subdued scherzo, and are themselves contained within a brief, elegiac prelude and postlude. Literally so as the soloist and orchestral horns (as well as the conductor) begin proceedings offstage, in a (Robert) Schumannesque flurry of sound, before the former enters the auditorium. What follows is a ruminative, but lucidly shaped, discourse with the soloist first among equals in a thoughtfully soloistic deployment of the orchestra. Indeed, while the horn part makes full use of the instruments variety of tone and differentiation of harmonics, it is the orchestral contribution which more immediately claims attention; both in the translucent textures which effortlessly sustain themselves over the work s larger span, and the brief but deftly-placed scherzo section which, with the sudden appearance of orchestral horns at the side of the platform, conjures up the Romantic associations with renewed emphasis. Moving to the centre of the platform at this point, the soloist completes a logical traversal by going to the right, then back into the wings, from where the horns sound out once more across time and space.
Richard Watkins has made something of a reputation for commissions - he premiered and recently revived the robustly lyrical concerto by Matthew Taylor - and clearly enjoyed the opportunity for inward display offered by Matthews. Salonen brought out the richness of the orchestral contribution, with the vital offstage horn parts crisply taken by the Philharmonias players. Matthewss work makes a thoughtful and rewarding addition to an increasingly diverse concerto repertoire.
The account of Bartóks Divertimento bore the hallmarks of Salonens idiomatic approach to this composer. Internal part-writing could have had greater definition in the increasing inhibitions of the opening movement, taken marginally too rapidly, and in the double fugue which redirects the momentum of the finale, but the Molto adagio had the right sustained unease, the Philharmonia strings articulating the central arc of despair with powerful restraint.
Sadly, restraint was a quality all too lacking in the performance of Sibelius Five after the interval. Salonens association with the work goes back to the beginning of his conducting career - there was a trenchant if unfocussed account with the Philharmonia back in 1984 - so it was disappointing that so much of the present reading should take needless risks and misfire. The opening Tempo molto moderato was well judged, doubts only surfacing with a heavy-handed and misplaced transition to the Allegro moderato section. Odd dynamic lurches and uneven articulation undermined the course of what should be a seamless symphonic continuum, while the coda was brutal rather than exhilarating. Salonen seemed uncertain what type of movement he wanted the Andante mosso to be, the quasi allegretto marking implies an intermezzo-like flow too often lacking here. Equally, the divisive pacing of the finales main thematic strands made cohesion difficult from the outset, though not even this prepared one for the fiasco of the closing pages: as coarse and contrived a peroration to this music of oneness as can be imagined, with grossly insensitive timpani playing obliterating the harmonic rhythm that steers the movement and the symphony to its magisterial close.
As a tribute to the Philharmonias former Principal Conductor and Music Director, Giuseppe Sinopoli, who died during a performance of Aida in Berlin last Friday, Salonen directed the orchestras strings in a suitably hushed rendition of The Death of Melisande from Sibeliuss incidental music. Sibelius was not a composer associated with Sinopoli during his years in London - though, on the evidence of much of tonights account of the Fifth Symphony, his approach could not have been much less convincing.
- This concert is broadcast on Radio 3 tomorrow night, Tuesday 24th April, beginning at 7.30pm
- The Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by the composer, plays the premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Daviess Antarctic Symphony on Sunday 6 May at 7.30 in the Royal Festival Hall. A Classical Source interview with the composer will appear shortly
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201
- Book Online: www.rfh.org.uk