City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen … Berg and Mahler 9

Piano Sonata, Op.1
Symphony No.9

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonThis long concert, beginning earlier than usual, opened with a volatile, rather over-heated, account of Alban Berg’s acknowledged Opus 1, a concentrated work that has no need of the extensions the composer originally planned. Mitsuko Uchida also found some rarefied contrasts, although such oppositions may have been too great in music that is so focussed across its whole. But there was no doubting the composer’s distinct personality, neither Liszt augmented or copycat Impressionism, or Uchida’s belief in the piece.

Such conviction continued into the thorny complexities of Berg’s Chamber Concerto (“for piano and violin with 13 wind instruments” – thirteen players, in fact, and at least one more instrument, for the flautist doubles on piccolo). In music based on mottoes formed from the note-related letters of the names of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg himself, the piano is the first instrument heard, the violin making a brief appearance before a long silence (and not heard again until the second movement). No praise is too high for Uchida and Christian Tetzlaff in this work (they have recently recorded it with Pierre Boulez) and the thirteen wind-players of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingUnder the easeful direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen this was first and foremost an expressive account, one also conscious of the work’s decadence and wit, its violence too. Uchida’s delicate playing ravished the ear, and Tetzlaff’s incisive and poetic contribution also proved the range and depth of Berg’s writing, the two musicians, often soloists rather than a duet, coming together (literally given that Tetzlaff moved to a different position) in the acerbic cadenza that launches the elaborate finale, here enhanced by the observation of a sectional repeat that some conductors exclude (including Boulez) and yet which yields a mathematical proportion that Berg carefully calculated. For the record, this performance lasted about 38 minutes.

Salonen’s conducting of Mahler 9 lacked penetration into the composer’s soul. This very vivid, public-sounding performance (not so much too loud as lacking in variegation) – and somewhat compromised by the lack of antiphonal violins (an arrangement common to Mahler’s times and his writing: check out the reproduction of Maximilian Oppenheimer’s painting “The Orchestra: Gustav Mahler conducts the Vienna Philharmonic” opposite page 38 of the printed programme for this Vienna series!). Furthermore eight double basses huddled in the right-hand corner of the platform lacked heft (the London Philharmonic’s now-regular ten has proved a more solid foundation) and they really need to project into the Hall rather than the orchestra itself).

This account rarely touched the heart but it was unquestionably absorbing. The opening movement was certainly Andante, the comodo part of the marking maybe too accommodating of tempo fluctuations, which here lacked continuity (gear-changes were awkward) and was also rather cool (the surges of sound outside of the emotion of the music). Still, when we did get a really quiet dynamic, someone opened a sweet-wrapper with remarkable indifference to what was going on! No-one could doubt the vividness of this performance, or the commitment of the Philharmonia Orchestra, but Salonen rarely probed beyond the surface of the score, moving the first movement along beyond its funereal tread, Mahler alive and kicking, which he was in some respects and with a Tenth Symphony in the wings.

With the dance-related second movement came some much-needed characterisation, a convincing heavy gait and some ‘rough’ tones, but tempo contrasts were over-played, some sections sounding glib; surprising then that the succeeding Rondo-Burleske was just a little staid, the ‘trio’ rather too integrated with little heart-easing. In a performance constantly on the move, the closing Adagio remained true to this spirit, full-toned, paced with direction but with niggling changes of tempo that upset the whole. However, the final fragmentation was brought off with the most wonderful sensitivity, which kept the large audience spellbound; a rapt silence that sustained the music and its aftermath.

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