Philharmonia/Salonen – 2

Symphony No.7 in C (Le midi)

Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This second of three concerts that the Philharmonia Orchestra is giving with its Principal Conductor designate Esa-Pekka Salonen opened with the second of Haydn’s early symphonic trilogy denoting times of day. As before, an early fortepiano was often prominent within the string textures, and the bassoon was placed next to the double basses to underline its quasi-continuo role, though the violins remained non-antiphonal.

More than its neighbours, ‘Le midi’ enjoys the occasional revival: surprising, in that it is stylistically the most backward-looking – the prominence of solo strings akin to the concertino of the concerto grosso, whose time was well past by 1765. The second movement is a ‘Recitativo’ whose alternation between static and energetic elements makes it an elaborate introduction to the lyrical Adagio that follows. With fine playing from the Philharmonia principals, Salonen got the feel of these movements just right – and if the Minuet again seemed a touch flaccid, the outer Allegros were nothing if not animated, and not lacking the genial touch that is pure Haydn even at this stage of his development.

From the midday of Haydn to the twilight – respectively figurative and literal – of Mahler and Richard Strauss. The expressive ambit of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” (1901/4) was sealed within three years of the cycle’s completion with the death of his elder daughter; since when, the work has been endowed with fateful as well as tragic implications. All the more reason, then, to control emotion more intently in performance – underlining that, affected as he was by Friedrich Rückert’s verse, Mahler’s settings are most notable for the telling restraint with which he underlines the sentiments of each poem.

And there can be few soloists able to distil such spare intensity than Monica Groop: her reticence in ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehen’ making the vocal line ‘first among equals’ with the solo winds and harp that otherwise pervade the musical texture, while the plangency of ‘Nun seh’ich wohl’ was the keener for its absence of false emoting. A noted interpreter of Baroque repertoire, Groop brought a Bachian clarity to bear on the austere manner of ‘Wenn dein Mutterlein’, and caught to perfection thebittersweet recollection of ‘Oft denk’ ich’. Salonen secured playing of real sensitivity – questionable only in the agitated opening half of ‘In diesem Wetter’, where orchestral dynamics could have been more reined in, though this did not prevent the song’s latter half from casting its transfigured spell.

Whereas Mahler’s pain is of an essentially introspective nature – that which characterises Strauss’s Metamorphosen (1945) is of a personal impulse, but raised to a national lament for the self-induced destruction of Austro-German culture at the hands of the Third Reich. Almost as a defence against the unleashing of such emotion, the work evinces a constructive rigour rare in his maturity: drawing its four main themes into a process of far-reaching, though nearly always audible, transformationthat reaches its formal and expressive apex at the virtual ‘golden mean’ where such climaxes occur.

Such was the impression made by this performance: one that drew the presentation, metamorphosis and apotheosis of the material into a process as seamless as it was technically immaculate. Others have conveyed more of the music’s inherent pathos, but few can have rendered its architecture with such powerful immediacy. Wisely, too, Salonen adhered to the stated ’23 solo strings’, so giving the Philharmonia players the opportunity to demonstrate individual and collective prowess. This they did in a memorable performance which rounded off a fine concert on an (unexpectedly?) cathartic note.

  • Third and final concert on 19 December
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
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    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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