Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen – Dubugnon & Sibelius – Arabella Steinbacher plays Brahms

Richard Dubugnon
Caprice for Orchestra No.1, Op.72/1 [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Arabella Steinbacher (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 1 November, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Richard DubignonPhotograph:  © Marie-Sophie LeturcqSwiss composer Richard Dubugnon (born 1968) has been asked to write pieces to open concerts. He has three such commissions: Caprice No.2 is for Orchestre de Paris and Paavo Järvi, while No.3 (‘Romain’) is destined for Accademia Santa Cecilia and Antonio Pappano. No.1 is dedicated to the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen and its scoring is identical to that of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

Opening this matinee, Caprice No.1 proved high-spirited and something of a showpiece. The main theme is strongly syncopated – indeed syncopation underlies the whole piece. Timpani are used adventurously and given several melodies. One was particularly effective when it was responded to by snarling muted trombones. An interesting effect caught the ear: if after a climax, a phrase ended quietly, gently trilling woodwinds would often follow – as if we were amid The Rite of Spring. Impulse was the order of the day and even in an apparently slower section the rhythm was not interrupted because the underlying pulse remained unaltered. The quiet ending was a delightful surprise.

It is usual in readings of Brahms’s Violin Concerto for a broad view of the first movement, marked Allegro non troppo. This account was no exception but the breadth suited this gracious and attractive performance. Salonen was at-one with Arabella Steinbacher throughout and she has the gift of shaping a theme eloquently, the orchestra’s response seamless and natural. Joachim’s cadenza was a thoughtful reflection. Beauty was the essence of this rendition and Gordon Hunt’s oboe solo commencing the slow movement was touchingly gentle, in parallel with Steinbacher’s warm way with this lovely melody. The Finale was lively, Steinbacher pointing up the ‘Hungarian’ nature of the main theme by accenting the penultimate note of the first phrase – a nice touch; there was much fire here but also flexible shaping, the musicians in sync.

Arabella SteinbacherPhotograph:  Peter RigaudThe more powerful aspects of Salonen’s conducting came to the fore in Sibelius 5, dramatic music underlined. There were many convincing quieter episodes, however, and one particularly magical moment – in the first movement wonderfully hushed strings beneath a mysterious bassoon solo. I have never been in a shadowy Finnish forest but these sounds conjured up what it may be like. Pizzicatos in the central movement were accurate but also notably expressive and subtly inflected. I am not always convinced by broadening the tempo at the close but it was so well-judged that it made the attacca into the Finale inevitable, during which Salonen’s spacious view of the tolling horn theme proved persuasive.

Particularly convincing too was the conclusion. Sometimes those carefully calculated pauses between the last six chords can get confused by the increase in tempo permitted by Sibelius sixteen bars from the end, but with Salonen the silences were magnificently precise and the composer’s daring treatment of the last few seconds of this great Symphony was triumphantly justified.

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