Philharmonia/Salonen – 3

Music of Today:
Chain 1
Memoria [UK premiere]

Timothy Orpen (clarinet) & Clive Williamson (piano)
Simon Haram (saxophones)
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Symphony No.8 in G (Le soir)
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Matthias Goerne (baritone)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This third of three concerts that the Philharmonia Orchestra has given with its Principal Conductor designate Esa-Pekka Salonen opened with the third of Haydn’s early symphonic trilogy denoting times of day (the review of the first concert gave a brief outline of their significant historical background).

Outwardly the most conventional of the sequence, ‘Le soir’ was given a performance that once again pointed up contradictions in Salonen’s approach: in this instance, the continuo (this time a harpsichord, held over from the Lutoslawski at the “Music of Today” pre-concert event) was rendered all but inaudible by the relatively large number of strings employed. This imparteda blowsy quality to the opening Allegro, with the concertante element in the Andante sounding queasy in intonation compared to the main string body. The Minuet’s trio was enlivened by characterful double bass solos from Neil Tarlton, while the ‘La tempesta’ finale evoked its storm with some immediacy.

It was nonetheless a laudable decision of Salonen to include these three symphonies – too rarely heard at concerts, and hopefully a sign that he is to make Haydn a regular feature of his Philharmonia concerts. Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that among the Principal Conductors – imminent and designate – of the Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras, none has any real track-record in symphonic repertoire from Haydn to Brahms: a likely deficiency, at least in the short-term, that ‘Conductor Laureates’ or equivalent should not necessarily be relied upon to remedy.

For the last of the Mahler song-cycles that have featured in these concerts, Matthias Goerne was on hand for “Rückert-Lieder”, which Mahler wrote during 1901/2. Unlike “Kindertotenlieder”, these were not conceived as a cycle, and it is up to the performer to decide on sequencing. Goerne chose to end with ‘Um Mitternacht’ – which, as the most austere in its scoring, mainly for woodwinds and brass, is best heard before the three slighter settings. Even so, Goerne brought conviction to its chorale-like declaration of faith at the close, then found a wistful repose in ‘Ich atmet’ einen Lindenduft’ and a deft humour in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’. He wisely refrained from over-milking the sentiments of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (which the programme note ought to have indicated was not scored by Mahler, so explaining an orchestration that sounds disconcertingly like Humperdinck!), before reserving his most rapt delivery for ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ – which, though made indelible by such as Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig, is essentially from the male perspective. Something that Goerne, abetted by soulful cor anglais playing from Catherine Lowe, reaffirmed in a memorable performance.

The string-orchestra masterpiece in this concert was Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). Salonen has performed this often, and this account no doubt reflected his current thinking on a work where precision does not preclude spontaneity. That said, the Andante tranquillo was a little staid in the way the fugue built to a central apex before its subtly varied retreat – the whole process being pointedly underlined without quite carrying a deeper expressive conviction. More convincing was the Allegro – its telling fusion of angular incisiveness and robust wit enhanced by the unanimity of exchanges between antiphonal string groups (the Queen Elizabeth Hall an ideal venue for this piece) – and the Adagio, its ‘night music’ disembodied and, at the climax, uplifting when rendered with such acuity. The Allegro molto started equally well, purposeful and engaging, but Salonen should have resisted so self-conscious an acceleration prior to the diatonic transformation of the fugue theme, while his manipulation of tempo in the coda smacked of contrivance. A pity, as such touches detracted from what it is that makes this one of the twentieth-century’s undeniable masterpieces.

Earlier in the evening, Salonen had been the focus of the Philharmonia’s regular “Music of Today” series.

In conversation with Julian Anderson (MOT’s Artistic Director), he introduced works by three composers who were all mentors (to a greater or lesser degree) in his formative years. Thus we had Lutoslawski’s coruscating Chain 1 (1983), its bracing sequence of overlapping melodic strands conveyed with the requisite astringency; Niccolò Castiglioni’s Daleth (1979) – an ‘endgame’ for clarinet and piano, given with poised assurance by Timothy Orpen and Clive Williamson (taking time out from his One-Minute Wonders project), to confirm this composer as having a rare depth of musical humour; and Franco Donatoni’s Hot (1989) – the heady simulation of an ‘imaginary jazz’ whose driving momentum was powered by Simon Haram’s scintillating saxophony.

Salonen contributed Memoria (2003) – an ingenious (if overlong) interplay of musical motion for wind quintet (and contrabassoon) that elicited a superb performance from the Philharmonia players. An insightful and engaging pre-concert programme, and there will doubtless be more opportunities to hear Salonen’s now sizeable output on the South Bank over the years ahead.

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