Philharmonia/Salonen – 1

Symphony No.6 in D (Le matin)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [Seven Songs]
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 [1943 version]

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

With Esa-Pekka Salonen just announced as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra from the 2008/9 season, this concert was a good opportunity to assess a relationship that has been ongoing since Salonen’s fabled debut with the orchestra – replacing Michael Tilson Thomas in Mahler Three – over 20 years ago. This was also the first of three concerts being given this month that will open with a Haydn symphony, continue with a Mahler song-cycle, and conclude with a major work for string orchestra.

The absence of Haydn’s early symphonies from the ‘modern’ orchestral repertoire is regrettable as, while they do not possess the imposing qualities of his ‘Paris’ and ‘London’ series, they find a composer willing to experiment with a genre coming into its own on the cusp of the Baroque and Classical eras. Forming a loosely descriptive trilogy, numbers 6-8 have long found favour on disc – though performances remain surprisingly rare. All credit, then, to Salonen (who made an arresting if not wholly successful Haydn disc with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra some years ago) for championing their cause here.

That said, his approach to ‘Le matin’ revealed an unsettled mix of ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ qualities: thus sparing vibrato and a fortepiano, vital in those passages that depend on a concertante of soloists to carry the thematic weight; but also a relatively large body of strings (violins not divided antiphonally) that made an amorphous impression in tuttis. Tempos were generally well judged – with the radiant ‘sunrise’ opening of the first movement leading into a sprightly Allegro, to which flute and oboe made characterful contributions; as did violin and cello in the Andante, framed by Adagios whoseBaroque precedents were thoughtfully underlined. The Minuet was a little flat-footed – though the soloistic interplay of the trio had all the requisite poise – while the finale lacked effervescence with phrasing this literal. No repeats, other than the first movement exposition, made for a rather short-winded 18 minutes: it will be interesting to see if Salonen does likewise in the other two symphonies.

Mahler’s song-cycles make an ideal alternative to a concerto. Here it was a selection from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” – the folk-inspired collection Mahler assembled from the late 1880s to the early 1900s, and which pervaded his symphonic thinking over that time. With Anne Sofie von Otter on hand, quality was guaranteed, even though the order of songs – with four humorous songs followed by three serious numbers – could have been more effective. Otter was suavity itself in ‘Rheinlegendchen’and brought a robust charm to ‘Verlor’ne Muh’ (a dialogue of sweethearts that works best with two singers), though ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ was a touch coy and ‘Lob des hohen Verstands’ too calculated to amuse. She and Salonen sounded rather at odds over how to phrase the death-ridden sentiments of ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, but ‘Das irdische Leben’ had the right fatalistic impulse, and ‘Urlicht’ – heard outside the context of the Second Symphony – was imbued with an easeful radiance (for all that its aura was undermined by the more bronchial members of the audience).

For the first of the string-orchestra second-halves, Salonen opted for an era-defining masterpiece from the turn of the twentieth-century. Although Verklärte Nacht is more frequently heard these days (rightly so) in its original guise for string sextet, the transcription carries an expressive charge that a large string body is uniquely equipped to deliver. Certainly the Philharmonia strings met the demands of this music with unanimity of ensemble and warmth – but not undue weight – of tone; vital in a performance which pushed expressive extremes to the limit. Salonen did not try to compensate for the lack of intimacy when compared to the original; this being an unashamedly ‘public’ account – whether in the protestations of remorse in the second section, or the warmth of understanding in the fourth (a pity the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired the work was not printed, especially as the programme note gave a misleading impression both of the verse and the music’s relationship to it). The shorter framing sections distilled a powerful atmosphere and if the work felt at all weighed-down with its own emotions, Salonen’s conveying of them only occasionally bordered on the disingenuous.

Overall, then, a promising start to this worthwhile mini-series, and one that augurs well for Salonen’s intensifying relationship with the Philharmonia in the years ahead.

  • Other concerts on 14 & 19 December
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