Related Rocks – 10th February

Chorale [London premiere]
Violin Concerto
Aura (In memoriam Witold Lutoslawski)

Sarah Chang (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 February, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

So “Related Rocks” draws to a close with an old-fashioned line-up of curtain-raiser, concerto and symphonic work. But then, as before in this series, nothing is quite what it seems.

Chorale is a creative realisation of the chorale melody ’Es ist genug’, immortalised by Bach in his cantata, O Ewigkeit. At eight minutes, Lindberg’s is a probing rethink; employing the chorale in a wide-ranging exploration of its harmonic potential. Even by the standards of his recent orchestral works, this is sensuous music with a vengeance, running the gamut of textures and emotions as the melody gains expressive ascendancy. Some curtain-raiser!

Not least because it features the same chorale as the basis for its final movement, Berg’s Violin Concerto makes an inevitable follow-on. Think also about the expressive streamlining the work represents in comparison with Berg’s earlier music, and the connection with Lindberg becomes clear. Not as clear as it might have been in the present performance, though Sarah Chang clearly recognises the technical challenges of the work and how to articulate its formal continuity.

There was little to fault in her flowing account of the ’Andante’, while the bittersweet folk inflections of the ’Allegretto’ lacked only the last degree of interpretative nuance. The ’Allegro was kept on a tight rein, Chang not shirking the concentration exacted by the accompanied cadenza, before a less than catastrophic culmination led to the ’Adagio’ – limpidly rendered, with the soloist’s magically sustained final note duly evoking transcendence.

Yet dynamics throughout felt constrained, as though an intimate confessional was being shared between the performers, the audience allowed to eavesdrop rather than addressed directly. The outcome lacked the intensity this music needs; a performance held at arm’s length that intrigued, occasionally moved, but finally failed to involve. Chang’s encore, Kreisler’s laconic Recitative and Scherzo, confirmed that she senses but has not yet absorbed the concerto’s expressive potency.

Aura (1994) made a natural culmination to this concert, and the series as a whole. Lindberg’s largest orchestral work to date, it defines the technical and expressive limits of his music as surely as had Kraft a decade earlier. Much has been written about the work’s symphonic potential, with the implication that a post-Sibelian solution to a much-debated formal process might have been attained. Yet the composer himself has played down this aspect, and hearing the work again confirmed his wisdom in doing so.

Put another way, Aura is a visceral and magnificently scored blueprint for what a symphony might be. Its four sections consciously avoid linear follow-through in favour of emotionally-heightened metamorphoses of ideas heard at the outset. The harmonic plateaux reached in the second and fourth sections provide expressive markers on a journey that fairly teems with detail, ensuring that surface complexity is supported by a sub-structure of over-arching momentum. Whether one judges the closing string paragraph as clinching in a symphonic sense, it serves the climactic and cathartic-purpose that Lindberg surely intended.

And he must surely have been delighted with the unwavering impact that Esa-Pekka Salonen drew from the Philharmonia Orchestra, in a performance whose occasional rough edges were as nothing beside its immediacy and evident dedication. It brought an enthralling series of concerts to an appropriate conclusion, confirming that Sir Simon Rattle’s much-quoted phrase of Lindberg being “living proof that the symphony orchestra is not yet dead” was no idle comment.

As to the future – if Lindberg is to be believed when he says that the melodic aspect of Chorale has opened up a new dimension, then his next orchestral work of comparable length to Aura, due for performance around 2005, promises an experience of comparable renewal in his musical language.

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