City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen … Berg Three Pieces & Mahler 7

Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
Symphony No.7

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 June, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The darkness and ambiguities of both these scores worked well in this juxtaposition, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s coolly assured and musically focussed conducting and a fired-up Philharmonia Orchestra engrossed the attention.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingAlban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra (1913-15) is an absolute masterpiece, musically challenging in its complexity (yet remarkably lucid, too) and an huge assault on the emotions, especially in the extended ‘march’ finale (completed on 23 August 1914) in which the composer perfectly entwines the loftiest musical thinking and a deeply felt – albeit brutal and nightmarish – commentary, one very probably inspired by the times (not least the rumblings of World War One). Ultimately, though, this is great music, taking the art-form irresistibly forward.

The often-breathtaking invention, and Berg’s layering of ideas, and the conflict between them, was given a remarkably assured outing by the Philharmonia Orchestra, rising to Berg’s daunting challenges with intrepidity. Such sureness served well the fragmentary, shadowy ‘Präludium’, Salonen finding volatility in the emotional upsurges and, then, teasing-out the rhythmic distortions of ‘Reigen’ (Round-Dance), in which some notable contributions from principal cellist and principal violist caught the ear.

‘Marsch’ (first-cousin to the finale of Mahler 6, if working to an entirely different agenda) was a little less successful, partly due to occasional glibness but largely because the catastrophe of the music was rather underplayed, particularly (pace Mahler 6) the hammer-blows that should shock to the core but which here were not quite the savage punch that they must be (although the one that stops, rather that closes the work, was suitably severe, albeit the brass needed to blare more at this point). Overall, however, there was a great deal to admire, not least Salonen’s appreciative preparation and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s security of response.

Similarly in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which is surely just as ‘difficult’ as music as the Berg, maybe more so in trying to unravel just what it’s all about (possibly a futile pursuit). Salonen generally opted for a ‘symphonic’ approach, the first movement given with a keen sense of journey (and with an impeccable euphonium – should be a tenor horn – solo by Duncan Wilson to open with), the various episodes welded into the whole (save a few moments of impetuosity), those that are awe-inspired ravishing the senses (even if the violins, unfortunately lumped together, lacked the ultimate in seductive tones), but there was a real sense of a ground-out arrival by the close; a symphony in itself, with elements of slow movement and scherzo.

Salonen wisely kept the first ‘Nachtmusik’ on the move (otherwise it sags), the scherzo (proper) was intriguingly playful (deftly played, too) rather than the more-usual macabre, with the second ‘Nachtmusik’ gently turned and luminous (but the guitar and mandolin could have been a little more prominent).

As for the madcap finale, the “brightness of sunlight” (Mahler), this was just a little staid (though better this than rampaging through it), somewhat ‘cut and paste’ rather than viewing the same object from different angles (a Birtwistlian solution!). Dance rhythms that should be insouciant and off-the-cuff were just a little stiff, but there was a gentle touch and some truculence, too. The glimpses of Wagner (Schumann and Lehár, too, surely?) weren’t quite in focus, but there was a powerful coming-together for the mighty coda.

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