Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen at The Anvil Basingstoke – Phibbs’s Rivers to the Sea & Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony

Rivers to the Sea [Co-commissioned by The Anvil and the Philharmonia Orchestra: world premiere]
Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Kate Royal (soprano) & Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)

Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 22 June, 2012
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England

Joseph Phibbs. ©Malcolm CrowthersWritten for the eighteenth birthday of The Anvil, Joseph Phibbs’s Rivers to the Sea is a major work from this youngish (38) composer whose output operates at a consistently high level of imagination and engagement. The title itself may be straightforward but it soon becomes clear that it is only a way into the music’s naturally evolving web of connections and consequences – the rivers’ flow of experience – hovering tantalisingly between the abstract and the recognisable. With a new work you can’t help being on the alert for influences to help get a handle on it. There are shades of Bartók, Sibelius and Britten as well as contemporary Americans (Phibbs has studied in the US and his response to that special American openness and intensity is a big element in his creative make-up), but the assimilation is complete and the style exceptional, and it seduces you into his unique world.

In its three movements Rivers to the Sea juxtaposes passages of slow growth, frenetic activity and virtual immobility, with a nocturnal opening of subliminal beauty, orchestrated with a spellbinding mastery, leading into some genuinely fast music (‘Night Fugues’) that plays virtuosic games with harmonic and rhythmic pace. The shift from a central interlude, a neutral if highly-charged vocalise for solo clarinet against strings, into an initially barely-discernible chaconne, edges the music into further mobility, with the accumulative surge of the final ‘Neon with Sunrise’ a blatant celebration of New York. The meshing of mood, pace and orchestration in this substantial, 25-minute piece is consummate, and its ambitious range visionary and hugely satisfying. Roll on the next Phibbs premiere.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingVisionary is also the word for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s incandescent conducting of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. The forces weren’t gargantuan (the orchestra founded on six double-basses, placed to the right behind the cellos, and a chorus of about 120) but from the remotest trumpet call and choral whisper to earth-shattering cataclysm, the sound revelled in the clarity of The Anvil’s natural, expansive acoustic.

Salonen’s way into the first movement was intense to the nth degree, as though the hero of Mahler’s funeral rites was very much alive and kicking his way out of his coffin. The shades of lyrical memories had an uneasy combustible quality, and the movement as a whole, in which Salonen played down the Maestoso direction, surged with danger. Here was a hero who definitely wasn’t about to go gently into that dark night, as shown by the terseness with which he was finally despatched. No wonder Salonen took a long pause for us and him to recover, but it wasn’t enough to stop the feeling of unease that permeated the Andante, with its Moderato qualification again played down. The undertow of anxiety became the driving force of the scherzo, its ironic bite lending a hard gloss to its empty moto perpetuo, a spiritual vacuum to be filled by the chaos at the start of the finale. Salonen took a bit of a risk with his approach to ‘Urlicht’, Monica Groop placing it firmly in the naïve, insistent ‘Wunderhorn’ world of human experience, and making it the hinge – rather than a seraphic interlude – that swung us into the high drama of the finale.

Salonen’s feel for its web of thematic references growing in articulation and sense of direction was faultless and its power overwhelming. The chorus stood at the moment of greatest crisis as if appalled to survey the ensuing desolation before, almost beyond audible range, delivering its first, redemptive “Aufersteh’n”; Kate Royal’s initial entries quietly nailed the music’s transformation; she and Monica Groop twined round each other magically in “O Schmerz. Du Alldurchdringer”; and even the rather woofy electronic organ didn’t sabotage the glorious volume of sound. As in the Phibbs, the orchestral playing was superlative, responsive and finely layered. This ‘Resurrection’ was a divine revelation.

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