There was no Philharmonia Orchestra Prom in 2014 but it now looks as if that was just a blip, notwithstanding Esa-Pekka Salonen’s growing prominence as a composer. While his own music has become more approachable, his interpretative style remains challengingly clean, clear and ‘modern’.
His Proms programming can still be provocative too. This one’s implied narrative about cultural identity and the fate of the Jewish people would have been more potent had the works been performed in chronological order but a journey into unambiguously sunlit uplands was preferred. Salonen avoided heavy-handedness throughout, despatching Schoenberg’s trilingual expressionist rant in record time and painting Mahler’s First Symphony in dazzling acrylic colours, an antidote perhaps to the bald deliberation (though lacking the cumulative strength) of Bernard Haitink’s recent Proms account of No.3. In between came one of Dutilleux’s late near-masterpieces in which the impossible subject of the Holocaust is gently alluded to rather than laid on with a trowel. The bill of fare attracted a large if not capacity audience, mostly very well behaved. The conductor used a baton throughout and managed to hold the silence following the Dutilleux, a remarkable achievement in itself.
First up was A Survivor from Warsaw (1947). The performance had been scheduled to feature Simon Russell Beale as narrator but there was a late stand-in in the form of the ever-reliable David Wilson-Johnson. In Los Angeles at the turn of the century Salonen must have created a rather different vibe with Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame. In London the veteran British baritone brought professional finesse and human passion to speech whose linear contour and pitch are predetermined in the notation. Schoenberg was himself responsible for the text. (No mitteleuropean accent was attempted.) Some find in these 99 tortured bars an apt portrayal of suffering and persecution, the final “Shema Yisrael” chorus a moving declaration of hope or at least defiance. Richard Taruskin famously thought otherwise, deriding what he called B-movie clichés, the Erich von Stroheim Nazi barking orders and “the kitsch-triumphalism” of the close, preferring the tangential approach of Steve Reich’s Different Trains. This seems a little OTT. As the composer put it in a letter to Kurt List, “The miracle is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.” Even today the twelve-tone idiom tends to be something you either love or hate. Salonen made the music feel less oppressive than usual even if the subject matter implied otherwise. Textures were razor-sharp.
An essentially orchestral score, Henri Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time (1997) could scarcely be more different in tone. Work began only with the 50th-anniversary of the end of World War Two. The non-Jewish composer who endured the Nazi occupation of Paris saw the music as only partially concerned with “distant events whose intensity, in spite of the imprint of time, has never ceased to haunt me”. It is only when alluding more directly to the Holocaust in its third episode that he enters the hazardous aesthetic zone inhabited by the previous work. So did the French veteran offer too easy a response? His brief text – “Pourquoi nous? Pourquoi l’étoile?” (Why us? Why the star?) – was given here by three boy trebles (performances vary as to the precise solution) in oblique and discreet tribute to Anne Frank and all the innocent children of the world. This is ‘contemporary’, not-quite-tonal music at its most gorgeous and palatable. It sounds utterly personal too, however many of its ideas have roots in jazz or indeed the central movement of Bartók's Second Piano Concerto. Salonen ensured it all sounded iridescent enough to silence doubts about the rather woozy trajectory and consistently softish grain. While other Dutilleux pieces can boast a stronger sense of direction, the inevitability of the ticking clock is plain enough.
Commentators were once reluctant to credit Mahler’s First Symphony with overtly Jewish colour, referring to the klezmer-ish third movement as Hungarian or using some other euphemism at a time when the composer was still unpopular and even subject to booing at the Proms. Salonen’s light, breezy rendering was very effective in its way, entirely characteristic of him if not of Mahler. Connections with the broader Austro-German symphonic tradition were attenuated. The violin desks were not separated although we did get the first-movement exposition repeat. In the third, Salonen rejected the regrettable contemporary tendency to allocate the opening double bass melody to the entire section but displayed plentiful evidence of Goyishe Kop (literally a non-Jewish head) later on.
Regardless of ethnicity, the likes of Rafael Kubelík and Leonard Bernstein created a potently ‘authentic’ atmosphere. Salonen’s, one felt, was Mahler’s late nineteenth-century nature symphony re-imagined as Stravinsky ballet music, every detail firmly contrived into being, the whole thing propulsive yet heartless. An anomaly of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic left some sections sounding like a triangle concerto. A bigger problem was the decision to place the horns so far to the left that when the players stood up for their spine-tingling denouement the effect was muted for those seated on the wrong side of the Hall.
As so often the Promenaders will have had a better balanced picture than well-heeled patrons. That perhaps is the unique selling point of the Proms as an institution so it’s worth putting up with the bordello lights and hideous cartoon graphics now projected around the rim of the stage. The latter are at least replaced by swatches of a plainer hue during the music-making.