Los Angeles Philharmonic/Salonen – Sibelius 3

Symphony 3 in C, Op.52Saariaho
Quatre instants
Symphony 1 in E minor, Op.39

Karita Mattila (soprano)

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: 9 November, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic returned to the Barbican Hall for their third of four concerts of Sibelius symphonies, having left London to present the complete cycle in Paris.

In the first movement of Sibelius’s Third Symphony, the bulk of the musical argument is given to the strings, and Salonen’s deployment of antiphonal violins was a distinct benefit. Throughout the movement, the playing of the strings was exemplary, a beautiful sound in pianissimos and fortissimos alike. Salonen maintained tension well, the only problem being a lack of projection from the woodwinds resulting in slightly muddy orchestral textures during climaxes.

In the ruminative second movement, the strings were again impressive, the playing of the section for divided cellos particularly haunting. Overall, however, the performance did not uncover the emotional depths to be found in this deceptively simple creation. In the finale, the role of the woodwinds is particularly important, but once again they were somewhat lost in the overall sound-picture, the clarinets and oboes sounding particularly somnolent. This undermined the musical argument, and the brass-led second half of the movement concluded without much sense of exhilaration.

Karita Mattila. Photograph: Lauri ErikssonFinish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “Quatre instants”, written for Karita Mattila, is a cycle of four songs from texts by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. The texts, in French, are associated with different facets of love. Saariaho’s writing supports the soprano voice with an evocative orchestral sound featuring instruments such as xylophone, glockenspiel and wind chimes, and using effects such as sliding string clusters. The four songs are predominantly slow, although the second, entitled ‘Torment’ is tense and agitated.

This performance, with Saariaho in the audience, strongly benefited from the presence of Mattila, providing sound of great beauty and a passionate commitment to the music that was most impressive.

Sibelius’s First Symphony commenced with an exaggeratedly quiet rendition of the clarinet solo, marked piano in the score, but at times almost inaudible. This led into a performance of the first movement that communicated some of the excitement implied by Sibelius’s Allegro energico marking, but by no means all. Both the Andante and scherzo were warm, relaxed interpretations. In these movements, as in the Romantic tune in the finale, Salonen seemed keen to emphasise the work’s Tchaikovskian inheritance. With fine playing from the brass, the conclusion was stirring, but it wasn’t a performance to bring the house down.

Salonen did, however, almost achieve this with his encore – the Allegro vivace from Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto. An exciting piece with Hungarian inflections, it was a surprising and delightful conclusion.

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