A programme of unusually juxtaposed masterworks journeying tempestuousness, neon-lit brilliance, garish climax and the contemplation of middle age.
I first came across Lise de la Salle in 2005, then a slight, wide-eyed teenager with a Naïve recording contract. Fresh and honest, disinterested in PR glamour puffs, “wanting”, Manuel Brug's words, “to be herself”, she made a prodigious impression. A few elegant recordings since, resolutely distancing herself from the competition circuit and hardline moguls, she's still very much “herself”. Inviting one to dream and dwell, her blog, a fragrant mixture of words, quotations and images, is the kind of read that goes down well late at night with a cognac, a winter wind knocking at the window, the embers of a fire glowing into shadow. She's a pianist of big, polished technique who plays with liberty, her valleys of sound, the spires of the music, signed off with hands and arms not so much flourished to the gallery as swept aside, wing-like. It's an athletic, distinctively energised means of see-through and release.
A youthfully impassioned artist playing an even younger composer tended to be her way with Brahms's D-minor Concerto, replacing an indisposed Leif Ove Andsnes. Plenty of Sturm und drang fuelled the pages, chords were hewn out of the instrument, octaves thundered and peeled, the religioso of the slow movement was projected with heart-on-the-sleeve directness, grandly chest-voiced and, somehow, the more intimately painful for being free of plush and preciousness. Arguably the Finale was more Allegro than non troppo, tending to race and lose breath – but the tension and electricity was palpable, erupting in a visceral finish, the Matterhorn, transient scree aside, thrillingly reached for and conquered. De la Salle's encore, Chopin's posthumous C-sharp minor Nocturne, was delicacy personified, a beautifully gauged, dynamically smoky reading of wonderful timing, phrasing and ornamentation – the major-key sections could not have been more beautifully executed, nor the scale roulades of the concluding page, the last especially, more vocally articulate or verbally suggestive. A ringtone at the end, cutting through the C-sharp major dusk, proved fortunately short-lived … when will audiences learn?
Under its Colombian/Austrian music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who succeeded Paavo Järvi in 2014, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, richly padded with some pedigree principals, provided de la Salle with cultured support. Granite tuttis, warm blending, and poignant solos – clarinet, bassoon and horn(s) in particular – together with a responsive timpani contribution from Lars Rapp (formerly with the Berlin Philharmonic), bringing depth to the end of the Benedictus Adagio, and a tight, folkloric timbre to the start of the meno mosso of the final movement (bars 442ff), added up to an urgent Brahmsian canvas, the flame burning bright.
Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin ballet-score – the complete version, premiered in Weimar Republic Cologne in 1926 – played to virtuosity and the temperament of Orozco-Estrada. It came off splendidly, the violence and grotesquery of Melchior Lengyel's 1916 scenario physical and confrontational, every incident highly coloured. Given Orozco-Estrada's propensity to occasionally encourage too much head of steam, he kept this performance singularly under control, each move dramatised with the body language and communication of a classic actor, gestures and eye-contact as gripping, languid or terrifying as needed. Maybe, here and there, a microsecond of pausing or air would have been beneficial – for instance the otherwise hectic, ensemble-opposed join into the Chase scene (before figure 62) even allowing for no such provision in the score. But, in the scheme of things, it scarcely mattered. A core performance of a tough twentieth-century standard, tensile and vitally characterised, standing somewhere between Doráti and Iván Fischer, is what we got, powerfully welded.
Setting words by Hölderlin, Brahms's tripartite Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), completed in 1871 post-German Requiem and Alto Rhapsody, less familiar these days, was supremely delivered. Often the onset of a performance, the very first sounds one hears, will be a key, instant and lasting, to the road ahead. Here, the balance between the opening Elysian E-flat woodwind chord, doubled espressivo strings and underlying kettledrums was so superbly judged and dispatched that it could only but set a certain mood and bring an incredulous smile.
Orozco-Estrada, generously giving, let neither emotion nor temperature drop, the final C-major cadence stilled in pianissimo like twilight farewelling a woodland pool. The thirty-nine strong Vocalconsort Berlin, eminently German in diction and inflexion, lived the poetry, the orchestra, violins to the left, cellos and double basses to the right, candled the notes. Gentle murmurs, gentle elaboration, “Man's sense of alienation within the cosmos.”