Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen Hélène Grimaud

Overture, Leonore No.2
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 September, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Esa-Pekka SalonenThe first three movements of the Berlioz impressed for the finesse and fluctuation with which they were presented, whether ‘reveries and passions’, elegant waltzing or, best of all, the musings in the countryside, the latter enjoying Jill Crowther’s particularly sensitive cor anglais solos and the perfectly-gauged distance of Gordon Hunt’s oboe responses (which would later become poignant silence) and with potent closing thunder (timpani/four players). ‘March to the Scaffold’ and ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ were less successful – the former too fast, lacking edge and enduring an ugly half-speed change of tempo two-thirds-through that initially suggested a collapse of ensemble; the latter – however vivid and brilliantly played – was no more than a ‘concerto for orchestra’ (good-sounding bells though). That Salonen passed on the repeats in the first and fourth movements was surprising – but also refreshing in avoiding a slavish approach to the text; whether the ad lib cornet part in ‘Un bal’ needed to be played is another matter, for it seemed, as ever, a distraction. What was not in doubt was the beauty or the personality of the playing or that Salonen has an ear for soft-toned pianissimo-playing that grabs the ear.

Given he can be an anonymous conductor of Beethoven (that remarkably dull ‘Choral’ Symphony at the Proms with the LA Phil a few years ago, for example), it was the Beethoven first-half that suggested that Salonen and the Philharmonia can prove to be a still-surprising combination (despite the years they have been associated). Leonore No.2 was powerful and measured, daringly hushed in the slow introduction (too many coughs though) and pregnant with anticipation; it was all suitably monumental, the allegros given with thrust and weight and a velvety beauty to the string sound. Only the off-stage trumpet fanfares seemed studied, maybe the more so for the electrifying increase of pace that heralded what should be a more dramatic moment than it was here.

Hélène GrimaudIt’s usually the case that the pianist’s opening sets the scene for the Fourth Piano Concerto as a whole. It wasn’t quite that on this occasion, for while Hélène Grimaud was notably moderate and reflective, the orchestra’s response then brought a gradual increase in tempo that also accommodatingly dropped back when Grimaud required it. Not that there seemed to be any disagreement; more there was a seeming spontaneity (with security) that allowed the music to sparkle without seeming glib and given with an elan that still probed both the poetry and enigmas that is enshrined in this miraculous work.

Grimaud’s lightweight sound remained a curiosity, however, albeit with a compensatory clarity and crisp articulation, her particularly strong left-hand bringing out details not always heard. The first-movement cadenza (the more-often-played of the composer’s two) was given with zeal. It was good to hear full and hefty strings in the Andante con moto, and a broad tempo, too – Salonen doesn’t seem to do ‘historically informed’ – Grimaud solemnly admonishing such abruptness into deep reflection: with pianism as pure and modest as this, how could it be otherwise? If the finale was sometimes too much of a flurry, this was a compelling and fresh-faced account.

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