Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen – Beethoven 1 & Eroica – Viviane Hagner plays Unsuk Chin / Ondřej Adámek & Perttu Haapanen Music of Today

Ondřej Adámek
Coups d’ailes [UK premiere]
Perttu Haapanen
Ladies’ Room [UK premiere]

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Unsuk Chin
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Helena Juntunen (soprano)
Members of the Philharmonia OrchestraPierre-André Valade [Adámek & Haapanen]

Viviane Hagner (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 March, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The early-evening Music of Today recital was particularly and encouragingly well attended. In the absence of Ondřej Adámek (born in Prague in 1979) to talk with, Music of Today artistic director Unsuk Chin introduced his Coups d’ailes (“for brass octet and space”, 2008), the instruments spatially deployed, Pierre-André Valade, facing the audience, cutting a lonely figure on the podium. The music, even over the brief duration of seven minutes, was uninteresting, maybe exasperating, as neighing, buzzing and siren effects followed one to another, and returned, for no particular reason. Good performance, though.

So too the rendition of Ladies’ Room, although what passed for a “conversation” (Unsuk Chin) beforehand between her and Finn Perttu Haapanen (born 1972) was no more than the two of them reading from a badly written script in stilted fashion. Ladies’ Room (2007) was worth hearing, although suggesting it as being on the same level as Schoenberg’s Erwartung is way off the mark; and, anyway, the musical language is closer to Berg’s Lulu. The text is compiled from diverse sources, such as the Bible, Paul Celan, internet search engines and The Domestic Annals of Scotland, with onomatopoeia thrown in for good measure.

Helena Juntunen. Photograph: harrisonparrott.comScored for soprano and eighteen musicians (embracing piano, harp, percussion and a mix of woodwinds, brass and strings) this is music of activity and energy, with occasional beauty, and – not sure why – suggestive of a world not far removed from Alice in Wonderland. Helena Juntunen (unforgettable in this Hall on 30 January 2010 with the London Philharmonic and Osmo Vänskä in some wonderful songs by Sibelius) made a fabulous contribution, initially steadying her large score by hand until a music-stand appeared several minutes into the performance. She was the mistress of every numeral, syllable, cough and impersonation required of her.

Viviane HagnerIn the main concert we also heard a striking example of Unsuk Chin’s music, her Violin Concerto of 2001. Previously heard in London on 9 April last year (Jennifer Koh with the BBCSO and Ilan Volkov), and that wasn’t the work’s UK debut, the solo part was now returned to Viviane Hagner who gave the world premiere in Berlin in 2002; she played with great experience. It’s a fascinating four-movement piece that sustains its 25 minutes well, the large orchestra (including two harps, harpsichord, celesta and enough percussion for seven players) never overwhelming the soloist and more concerned with mosaics and mechanisms; no prizes for working out that Unsuk Chin (born 1961) studied with György Ligeti. With overlaying contrasts of metre, earthy vigour and ethereal lightness, and expressive ‘open’ strings and ‘tuning-up’ chords, there is much that is diverting, the sounds busy, ever-changing and replenishing. The finale’s rich rhapsodies build to a frenzied climax (Esa-Pekka Salonen was visibly shaking at this point) and a beatific aftermath. This polished account from all concerned presented a significant opus.

On this evening details of Beethovenfest Bonn (this year from 7 September until 7 October) were presented. Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra will give a complete Beethoven symphony cycle in the city of the composer’s birth.

In London the First Symphony was a joy from beginning to end, the opening romantically inviting, the Allegro relaxed and pointed with plenty of subtly dynamic spirit. What a pleasure to hear Beethoven played without acerbic timbres (the ‘period’ trumpets and smaller timpani flared agreeably) and a metronome working overtime. Following a shapely second movement, the third, although Beethoven entitled it ‘Menuetto’, is a scherzo, Salonen nipping through it and seamlessly integrating the trio … then straight into the finale with a dramatic attacca, the movement given with foot-tapping vitality but not rush or force. Crispness and clarity were high on Salonen’s agenda, but not pedantry or within ‘historical’ parameters.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingWith all repeats (rightly) observed (including in the da capo of the Minuet) in this C major symphony during which Beethoven hangs on to Haydn’s coat-tails while establishing himself as Ludwig the First, one might have then expected the exposition twice-through in the first movement of the ‘Eroica’. Salonen eschewed it, however, a welcome excision given the perfunctory return to the opening and the more-important need to get straight to the meat of the movement, the development.

If Salonen didn’t quite present an ‘Eroica’ that was the ultimate in evolutionary zeal, this was an uncommonly unfussy if insightful interpretation, debonair even, free from point-making, refreshed and refreshing (with some notably quiet playing), measured in tempo if leaning to quick and traditional enough to still accept Hans von Bülow’s emendation towards the end of the first movement. The ‘Funeral March’ had gravitas and an eloquent oboe line from Christopher Cowie, music-making of dignity and largesse rising to majestic intensity, although a lurch forward in tempo before the swell suggested the pallbearers thinking they might be late for the service. The scherzo lacked nothing in panache, the horn threesome deft come the trio … and then, once more, straight into the finale, here exhilarating and life-affirming (Samuel Coles a nimble flautist), and liberating in the coda to complete a stimulating performance.

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