Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen Sergey Khachatryan – Brahms & Berlioz

Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Sergey Khachatryan (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 10 June, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sergey KhachatryanSergey Khachatryan here placed his very considerable technique at the service of a strongly felt performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. In a broadly paced account of the first movement he rose to most of the huge technical challenges – the odd intonation problem aside – but what was in short supply was the sheer weight and richness of tone that the work requires. Still, Joachim’s cadenza was despatched by Khachatryan with confidence, and there was sensitive playing from him in the slow movement, in which the wind section also made memorable contributions, particularly Gordon Hunt in the wonderful oboe solo at the very outset. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra brought a suitable rush of adrenaline to the finale, but while Khachatryan played with much vigour, a truly gypsy-like temperament was absent. As an encore, Khachatryan gave a heartfelt ‘Sarabande’ from J. S. Bach’s D minor Partita.

Surprisingly returning to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique so soon (but no doubt because the September 2008 performance is newly available on Signum Classics), Salonen’s approach trod a measured path between the analytical and the fantastical. The beginning of the opening movement, ‘Rêveries, Passions’, hypnotically conveyed a heady mixture of world-weariness, delirium, and angst, the winds and horns subtly piercing the nervous string phrases in a manner that was simultaneously hypnotic and enervating. And in the allegro, Salonen unleashed a tide of almost unbridled energy (while, typically, losing the exposition repeat).

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe lilting second-movement ‘Waltz’, prefaced by wonderfully shimmering strings, was finely phrased and, by turns, joyful, wistful, and abandoned. There were highly effective contributions from Alistair Mackie on cornet (in the ad lib part) and – near the close – Barnaby Robson on clarinet, the latter conjuring up the darker mood barely concealed below the surface. The more-potent sadness that permeates ‘Scène aux champs’ was eloquently evoked in the duet between cor anglais (Jill Crowther) and off-stage oboe (Gordon Hunt); and the multiple-timpani’s suggestion of distant thunder at the close was all the more effective for being understated.

An unusually brisk and – perhaps precisely because of that – especially tense ‘March to the Scaffold’ was notable for arresting contributions from the clarinets, bassoons, and brass; after which Salonen set his forces on a dark and brooding path in a menacing ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, the grotesqueries of which were given graphic expression in orchestral playing of staggering virtuosity. The final pages of this awesome phantasmagoria – blazing brass and shrieking winds to the fore – made an overwhelming impact. And whilst many details of the score were revealed with an unusual degree of clarity, the overall shape and essence of the work were never compromised; a tad short on poetry, at times, but the dramatic gains were considerable.

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