Esa-Pekka Salonen’s latest slow traversal of Mahler’s Symphonies turned the clocks back to first base in this concert, with the First Symphony – the third of six performances (following Leicester and Basingstoke – both with David Fray and preceding a short European tour to Paris, Antwerp and Essen, where the Mahler is prefaced by Beethoven’s Second Symphony).
David Fray, seated on two stacked chairs, presented Beethoven’s first-written numbered Piano Concerto (though published second). Mozartean élan was to the fore, in a softly articulated rendition. Fray curves his back and inspects the keys and his fingers like Trifonov, but with a much more delicate touch, producing a lovingly warm-hearted tone, well integrated with Salonen’s firm but flexible approach. Fray is an unfussy pianist (the occasional sweeping aside of his drooping hair), matching his music-making and also offering an equally clear and crystalline rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Opus 9/2.
Salonen’s Mahler is always a welcome proposition, although the First Symphony is absent from his discography. He last conducted it with the Philharmonia in London at the 2016 Proms and, if anything, his grasp on the score seems even tighter. He is a conductor that always inspires confidence: it’s clear he knows what he wants and his technique is easy to follow. Recourse to the score confirmed Salonen’s innate sense of detail, creating a thrilling canvas to which his players added layers of colour. Sometimes he doesn’t need to conduct at all – save for starting the timpani pulse at the beginning of the third movement Salonen was happy to stand still while bassist Tim Gibbs sounded the first rendition of ‘Bruder Martin’ (better known to us as ‘Frère Jacques’), before being joined by Robin O’Neill’s bassoon. The slow-moving chaotic canon that results from the ensuing overlapping entries and, later, the klezmer-like folk utterances followed naturally with Salonen segueing into the furore of the opening of the Finale extremely successfully.
From the eerie high harmonics of the very opening to their truncated return in the Finale, via the surging climaxes that bring all but the third movement to a close, this was a thrilling performance with both Salonen and the Philharmonia in tip-top form.