Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto

Le tombeau de Couperin
Piano Concerto [Co-commissioned by BBC, NDR Hamburg, New York Philharmonic & Radio France: European premiere]
Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony, Op.17 [excerpts]

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 30 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The centrepiece of this Prom was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto. His pre-concert discussion offered no music examples, so the idea of a work with a huge and varied frame of reference (including sci-fi birds!) sounded fascinating. Oh, how those expectations were dashed.

Yefim Bronfman, a close friend of Salonen’s (the idea of the concerto was born over several shared vodkas, apparently!), was the brave soloist. Bronfman tackled his part – which zooms in and out of focus, sometimes part of the overall texture, sometimes accompanying, sometimes as dominant soloist – with aplomb and apparent ease. But the work itself is a patchwork quilt that is rather too big for the bed it lies on. At over thirty minutes, it is simply too long for its material. The ‘French Baroque’ influence in the first movement (dragged into an acerbic, modernist world) found violins shrill and unconfident. How much rehearsal had there been? Soon, hyper-Romantic melodies stood cheek-to-cheek with jazz-inflected rhythms. As the piano dipped into the orchestral sonority and stepped out again, the prevailing question became: What exactly is happening here? (Or, more accurately, is anything actually happening here?)

The birds of the second movement are not the mystic soul-carrying messengers of God that Messiaen envisaged. Rather, Salonen takes his inspiration from science fiction and writes what he calls ‘Synthetic Folk Music with Artificial Birds’. Actually, bits sounded like a sort of schmaltzy Messiaen rubbing shoulders with some sub-Gershwin. There was no doubting Bronfman’s ability or determination (he played quite beautifully) but the music itself was pure colour. And man cannot live by colour alone. The finale, with a perpetual motion basis and using five chords as a chaconne idea, is the most successful movement.

The premiere of the concerto took place in New York in February this year. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin was also played on that occasion. In London the performance was suave (‘Prélude’), fresh (‘Forlane’), affectionate (‘Menuet’) and vigorous (‘Rigaudon’). True, first violins were not always totally together in the ‘Forlane’, and there was a false start to the ‘Menuet’, but nevertheless there was plenty of energy.

Four of the orchestral movements from Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette” occupied the concert’s second half. Salonen didn’t convince as a totally idiomatic Berliozian, the music made less persuasive than it should be.

Dry-sounding cellos prepared the way for a busy but rather workaday ‘Introduction’. The ‘Love Scene’ meandered rather than being a torrent of romance. Technical considerations detracted from ‘Queen Mab’, rendering it anything but quicksilver. ‘Romeo alone’ lacked a feeling of expanse, and another superb oboe solo (from Richard Simpson, who had distinguished himself in the Ravel) was not enough to lift the performance above the mundane. The supposedly exultant latter stages merely sounded clumsy.

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