Jukka-Pekka Saraste returned to the London Philharmonic Orchestra in what is becoming something of an annual special event. Two years ago (after a memorable partnership with Radu Lupu in the ‘Emperor’ Concerto) Saraste had ended the concert then with Brahms’s First Symphony, and here was the same combination of composers; all in D major.
This time we also had an opener – as brief as it is rare – in the shape of Sibelius’s The Dryad (1910), evoking – rather impressionistically, a Greek wood-nymph, even to the extent of beating Ravel by two years to similar sounds in Daphnis et Chloé. With its almost constant off-beat entries and mellifluous flute solo there is definitely something French about the five-minute piece, and Saraste certainly allowed the orchestra to feel at home in this unfamiliar music.
Unknown isn’t an epithet to be applied to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto – indeed it was seven months and a day since the LPO had played it with Christian Tetzlaff – and Thomas Zehetmair followed Tetzlaff in using cadenzas transcribed from Beethoven’s piano version of the concerto, specifically credited to Wolfgang Schneiderhan. Zehetmair was swift in pace and lacking the cleanest articulation and the most accurate tuning, necessitating a complete re-tune between the first and second movements (after a smattering of applause from a distinctly Friday-night audience). But there was much to enjoy in the interplay with Saraste and his reduced forces.
The second half consisted of a loving performance of Brahms’s warmest symphony, the autumnal Second, burnished with rich melodies and golden moments. As Colin Anderson mentioned in his review of Saraste’s Brahms 1, this is perhaps not typical Saraste repertoire, although I now think we should consider it so. His Second was just as fine as his First in December 2009. Saraste is fascinating to watch, especially without a score. He holds his arms high and tends not to use his wrist to indicate the beat, so his whole right arm keeps everything together, while his left arm – always raised, with hand held flat – seems to be able to keep the musicians under check. Although his left palm usually faces down, it can be extraordinarily expressive, moulding the music in mid-air. Saraste, like Bernard Haitink, knows where the music is going and is expert in building the architecture always with an eye to the climax of the piece. Here, after teasing out countless felicitous timbres that made you wonder whether you’d heard Brahms quite like this before, he unleashed the ultimate coda with an extraordinary whiplash of energy that took the breath away.
It was a shame the LPO’s microphones weren’t there to capture the excitement. Hopefully we might get Saraste’s Brahms Three and Four in future seasons.