Philharmonia Salonen Ax

Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

Susan Bullock (soprano)

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

While the audience, including your reviewer, was seated in time-honoured fashion in the Royal Festival Hall, a great deal of activity was occurring backstage and in cyberspace. This was the first time that a UK orchestra had undertaken a “fully interactive webcast”, something well publicised (not least as a Classical Source news item); in consequence I went along with fears that the concert might be intruded upon for the ‘greater good’ of technology.

Such fears proved groundless. Indeed, the whole operation was superbly achieved. Microphones and cameras are nothing new at concerts, of course, and sometimes the latter distract. Here the cameras – left and right of the platform, one in the Choir area and one in the Stalls – were hardly noticeable, and microphones are, of course, an everyday presence. Nor was there any requirement for extra, let alone coloured, lighting. So, it can be done!

Thus, this Philharmonia Orchestra concert was both ‘normal’ and beamed world-wide: a wonderful initiative and achievement. If this is the future of concerts, in which the listening experience of being in the concert-hall is not interfered with and not trampled over by broadcasters, then ‘thumbs up’. Those responsible for, say, televising the Proms should take a look at what was achieved here – a perfect exemplar of the ‘less is more’ maxim.

The concert itself found the Philharmonia Orchestra in superb form. Esa-Pekka Salonen is currently conducting Tristan complete in Paris (a Peter Sellars production), so being able to compress the opera into twenty minutes here must have been interesting for him. The one surprise was the inclusion of a singer (for the Liebestod), simply because one was not listed in advance publicity (that I saw); therefore to learn several days earlier that Susan Bullock was replacing Angela Denoke was quite mysterious!

Bullock was in superb voice and ‘inside’ the text, although she never found a true pianissimo, which was particularly evident in her initial entry. Extremes of dynamics were left to the orchestra, Salonen entreating that the Prelude should start from nothingness and that the double basses be required to create the most pregnant ‘distance’ to herald the Liebestod; a breathtaking moment. Otherwise this Wagnerian ‘snippet’ ominously surged to ‘love-death’, Bullock (Isolde) finally enveloped in a flood of orchestral sound. A shame some of the punters couldn’t allow more time before applauding; if the conductor keeps his arms aloft, it means something. And a pity too that the midpoint of the Strauss, released here with immense ‘punch’ and which should implode to prolonged silence, was greeted with a ripple of clapping, which will hopefully be excised from the recording available for downloading.

What was gratifying, though, if surprising from Salonen, was to have the orchestra’s strings deployed with antiphonal violins, the cellos left-centre and the double basses behind them: the classic arrangement – as required by Christoph von Dohnányi (the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor) and Otto Klemperer before him. This is a tradition worth knowing about – and here served the music with pertinence; it is, after all, the seating-plan that these composers knew and exploited in their writing.

Zarathustra, for all the orchestral magnificence it was dispatched with, was interpretatively an inconsistent affair. The famous opening (now inescapably associated with Kubrick’s ‘2001’) had too prominent an organ and was rather uniformly presented. Indeed, save for an especially compelling ‘Of science’ (outstanding double basses, once more), although one could admire Salonen’s non-indulgent approach and his fine ear for balance, there was also a lack of involvement and, maybe, a teeny bit of embarrassment with some of Strauss’s, dare one say it, corny invention; the waltz music, for example, was pushed-through rather than lilted. That said, the Midnight Bell cut through with unusual vividness and the final, desolate pages were suitably ambiguous.

After the interval, Salonen provided a crisp accompaniment (with more or less full strings founded on six, rather than eight, double basses) for the ‘Emperor’ Concerto. Tempos were brisk and for all that Emanuel Ax, after an uncertain start and some tipsy chords, produced some wonderfully delicate playing and caressed warmly some of the lyrical writing, greater breadth was needed, especially in the Adagio, which lacked eloquence and feeling, and in the finale, which was shoved along. There was, though, much to relish in Ax’s range of dynamics and sound, and his unfailing musicianship, admirably partnered.

Congratulations to the Philharmonia Orchestra and all those who facilitated the broadcast without the need to impinge upon hallowed territory.

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