Bartók
Divertimento
Colin Matthews
Horn Concerto (Philharmonia Orchestra commission: World premiere)
Sibelius
Symphony No. 5 in E flat

Richard Watkins (horn)

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Concertos have run unobtrusively through the output of Colin Matthews since the subtle and understated First Cello Concerto of 1984. Practicalities aside, it is surprising that a Horn Concerto should have been so long coming, as the restrained and evocative timbres of the instrument are ideally suited to a composer as steeped in the Mahler-Berg soundworld as Matthews is.
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 instrument’s 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 Philharmonia’s players. Matthews’s work makes a thoughtful and rewarding addition to an increasingly diverse concerto repertoire.
The account of Bartók’s Divertimento bore the hallmarks of Salonen’s 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. Salonen’s 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 finale’s 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 Philharmonia’s former Principal Conductor and Music Director, Giuseppe Sinopoli, who died during a performance of Aida in Berlin last Friday, Salonen directed the orchestra’s strings in a suitably hushed rendition of ’The Death of Melisande’ from Sibelius’s incidental music. Sibelius was not a composer associated with Sinopoli during his years in London - though, on the evidence of much of tonight’s 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 Davies’s Antarctic Symphony on Sunday 6 May at 7.30 in the Royal Festival Hall. A Classical Source interview with the composer will appear shortly
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