Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Lemminkäinen Legends, Op.22
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 30 September, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The beginning of Julian Anderson’s final season as artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s long-running Music of Today series was the cue for Esa-Pekka Salonen to announce his successor, Unsuk Chin. A single piece was chosen to launch the latest leg of MOT, Colin Matthews’s Suns Dance (the title an “admonition”, said the composer), a 20-minute piece from 1985 for wind quintet (piccolo down to contrabassoon via bass clarinet) and string quintet (including double bass), music that pulsates, its complexities a rich tapestry to unpick and revel in. Not without wit or enchantment, Suns Dance exudes kaleidoscopic velocity, a glinting and sepulchral soundworld, one heroically brought to life by ten hard-working musicians from the Philharmonia under the consummate direction of Diego Masson.
To begin the main concert, the opening of Finlandia was dominated by overloud brass and timpani, then became hard-driven and noisy, then excessively sentimental and punctuated, the music blazoned as no more than a showpiece – and under the leadership of one of Sibelius’s countrymen, too.By contrast, the orchestra was rather restrained for the ‘Emperor’ (should have been Brahms’s First Piano Concerto), Hélène Grimaud tending to ride roughshod over the orchestral small print when something more accompanimental is required (and the dialogue with timpani in the finale’s coda went for little), a head-down, well-practised account not always easeful enough and sometimes smudgy. Yet flexibility of pace in the opening movement was made effective in moments of reflection, the solo-in-place-of-a-cadenza a magical illustration. The slow movement was spacious and rapt (gloriously inauthentic) and the finale enjoyed roundedness as well as energy.
The Lemminkäinen Legends were given a compelling and revelatory outing. A couple of moments of brass stridency aside, this was a deep-thinking account of an underrated tetralogy. Full marks to Salonen for playing the two longest pieces first (Sibelius’s revised order, decided upon in 1947, several decades after composition, preferred ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ second, but that simply doesn’t work, and Salonen fully vindicated his vouchsafing of Sibelius’s original plan).
‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island’ was full of atmosphere and imagery, balletic point, grace, passionate declamation and spectral speediness. ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ began in a flurry of activity, suggesting a stark uninhabited place painted with many an individual touch on Sibelius’s part, musically bordering on Expressionism, something Pagan, imaginative orchestration such as the quietest of side drum rolls, solo flute and upper strings creating a chill. The best-known movement, ‘The Swan of Tuonela’, a black pearl of a piece, here blessed with mellifluous cor anglais solos from Jill Crowther, glided imperceptibly onto the scene, secluded, hermetical … and straight into ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’, dazzlingly played, this steed a fearless animal traversing all manner of terrain at speed, the Philharmonia Orchestra now swaggering, massively confident, hooves to the fore.
Why BBC Radio 3 withdrew from recording this concert was not revealed, but microphones were nevertheless present, so maybe a release is scheduled on Signum … hopefully.