Appearances can be deceptive. On the face of it this might have seemed like inedible Schoenberg safely sandwiched between two standard works. The reality was more subtle. Whatever his subsequent reputation, Schoenberg was the most reluctant of revolutionaries, seeing himself very much as part of that long German tradition. He also happened to be a master of variation-form so the pairing of Brahms’s Haydn Variations with Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto was entirely apposite.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s account of the Brahms was understated, unpretentious and extremely satisfying because it was particularly well-played. Eschewing extremes of speed or characterisation, Salonen’s virtues lay in blend and precision, the opening ‘St Anthony Chorale’ and con moto
third variation notably well balanced and each variation thereafter building naturally towards an expansive account of the finale. Seldom is this work treated with such finesse and restraint that strings and wind seem equal partners or so much inner detail emerges with this degree of unforced transparency.
Schoenberg’s late Piano Concerto is one of his most approachable works. In its interplay of soloist and orchestra (basically Classically augmented with percussion and heavy brass, used sparingly) the piece might almost be described as a Mozart concerto refracted for the 20th-century. Mitsuko Uchida is a fine Mozartean and chamber player; both virtues which equip her particularly well in this music, one with a clear narrative (“pleasant ... hatred ... grave ... life goes on”. The concerto opens with a series of elegant exchanges, before a menacing build up to the outbreak of hatred. Its heart lies in the third section, introduced here by a particularly eloquent bassoon solo from Amy Harman, its argument punctuated by some splendidly nasty-sounding exchanges with the trombones followed by a cadenza. Uchida and the Philharmonia negotiated the work’s tricky corners with confidence and aplomb. Uchida gave us the briefest of encores, the second of Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19.
Part of Salonen’s ongoing Beethoven cycle with the Philharmonia, the Seventh was hardly the most Dionysiac of accounts but had many compensating virtues, not least the perfectly blended playing. This was large-scale but the edge of valve-less trumpets and hard sticks on the timpani added grit to the oyster. The first-movement exposition repeat was taken to good effect, more dynamic second time round and with a fine skip to the dotted rhythm. Salonen proceeded with minimal pauses between movements, tension progressively ratcheted up. Special care was taken over balances and dynamics, most noticeably in the weighting of the strings at the outset of the Allegretto and later in the same movement (bar 150) where flute, oboe and bassoon were unusually poised over the staccato accompaniment. Rugged and earth-shattering, no; carefully calibrated and thoroughly informed, yes.