With this Proms visit the Philharmonia Orchestra under its Principal Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, renewed the beauty contest that has been a feature of the closing days of the season. But even in a crowded field, the Philharmonia’s playing was exceptional, not only in its virtuosity and chameleon-like response but also in leading listeners to re-think expectations of music they think they know well.
Mozart’s 1786 comedy Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was a mischievous commission from Emperor Joseph II to be performed alongside Salieri’s Prima la musica, e poi le parole (Music first, then the words), the Mozart sending up theatrical jostling for power backstage, a prototype of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (and used the Salieri as the basis of Capriccio). The Philharmonia set up the Overture’s robust good humour with period-style bounce and earthy rasping horns. It was over in a flash, leaving us gagging for more.
What we got – after a panic-stricken wait longer than the Mozart for a percussionist and the timpanist – was the UK premiere of DoReMi, the second violin concerto by Peter Eötvös. The title derives from the syllables of Midori’s name, recast as DoReMi, the first three tones in the tonic sol-fa system hitherto only immortalised in The Sound of Music.
While Eötvös avoided the obvious Midori ordering of notes (E, C, G), the endless permutations and, to the composer, significances of the work’s three-note driving force, it inevitably recalls the rigorous, post-serialist cellular methods adopted by Boulez, although Eötvös’s music tends to be more discursive. Like Salonen, and indeed Boulez, Eötvös is a composer/conductor, for whom time spent in front of an orchestra feeds him with endless possibilities of sound. As well as the motto-variants saturating the score, the ear was also saturated by his acute orchestral imagination. You couldn’t help but be impressed, but it wasn’t involving. And even though it lasted only 22 minutes, there were uneasy moments, particularly in the cadenza, when the delights of navel-gazing sonorities and mercurial compositional games seemed endless. Midori was extraordinary – vivid, pliant, diaphanous – but even her tireless playing didn’t release much in the way of musical character and psychology. Yet, with all its exquisitely crafted colours, slides, drones and stylistic dips into jazz and folk, it seemed a great pleasure to play.
I can imagine Brucknerians raising their collective eyebrow at Salonen’s approach to the Seventh Symphony, in a performance that recaptured the thrill and wonder of my first hearing it, some years ago. Those used to rock-like juxtapositions and huge sonorities may have felt that Salonen’s generally forward-moving tempos, preference for airy, rather classical phrasing and a general lightness of being may have imposed too much febrile instability on the music. Salonen, a noted Sibelius conductor, applied the same sort of organic flexibility to this particular ’cathedral in sound’, handled in such a way that you were as much aware of the stained glass as you were of the structure.
The Philharmonia’s attention to colour was phenomenal, the level of connectivity between the instrumental hierarchies consistently intense and the transparency of sound sometimes of impressionist delicacy – the sort of blend that can instantly retreat to admit some stunningly well-played wind solos. Salonen’s pulse for the first movement was not in itself surprising, but the musicians’ responsiveness was such that he could pull of expressive ritardandos, and the music had an unmistakable Alpine freshness, the sort of contentment that Mahler would agonise about losing. Another great Sibelius conductor, Colin Davis, was particularly successful in the Seventh’s Wagner-elegy Adagio (which he used to place third), grading the approaches to the summit with visionary control, and Salonen was just as magisterial in the music’s regrouping for the final ascent, the shadows cast by the quartet of Wagner tubas yielding to beckoning, brilliant trumpet calls and giving the (Nowak edition’s) cymbal and triangle a glorious inevitability – and, again, the layering of sound was stupendous. I much enjoyed the pressure Salonen applied to the scherzo and the rather flashy results, and he played with suggestions of mood-swings in the here not-so-rustic trio. The biggest risk Salonen took was in the finale, fleet-footed to the point of weightlessness but miraculously balancing the slow movement’s centre of gravity and making the transformation of the first one’s main theme really sing out. You could well imagine such momentum going off the rails, but the Philharmonia Orchestra’s response ensured a breathtaking outcome.