From the Wreckage

La mer
From the Wreckage [BBC co-commission with Helsinki Philharmonic and Gothenburg Symphony orchestras: UK premiere]
Daphnis et Chloé – Suites I and II

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)

Crouch End Festival Chorus

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 9 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Flash floods in West London kept audience numbers down for this vaguely watery Prom, a welcome transfer from the Helsinki Festival. Esa-Pekka Salonen has re-emerged recently as a composer but his interpretative manner remains much as it always has been. Directing the competent but lightweight Helsinki Philharmonic without the use of a baton, he elicited sophisticated results without necessarily plumbing unsuspected depths.

La mer, plus relatively restrained grey-blue lighting effects courtesy of our friends at BBC 4, was fresh and brisk with a glorious blaze of sunlight at the end of the first movement and no lack of finesse or élan. This was a much more sheerly enjoyable account than that offered by Sir Simon Rattle’s recalcitrant Berliners last year. In ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’, Salonen favoured a radical drop in tempo for the central section, ushering in a beautifully articulated heat haze. Unlike say Abbado and Karajan he did not restore the fanfares present in Debussy’s 1905 score from bar 237. Fortunately the inevitable mobile phone incident occurred between the first two panels of the triptych rather than during the music itself.

Someone thought a deeper pink glow would be appropriate for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new piece, not, it turned out, a reference to a shipwreck in the literal sense for all that Anthony Burton’s detailed programme note looked at its structure in terms of waves of acceleration. Håkan Hardenberger arrived with three instruments: flugelhorn, trumpet and piccolo trumpet, each to be deployed in turn as the mood brightened. As Turnage sought to ‘dispel the fears’ again with his familiar shell-shocked lyricism and jazz-tainted scoring, you could argue that this 15-minute piece offered nothing new. What it did do was confirm the fact that we have at least one composer whose instantly recognisable voice is here to stay.

The oceanic creation myth of “Luonnotar” opened the second half (amid autumnal dappling from the lighting people) and one really felt for Turnage who stayed on to hear the rest of the concert. The sheer economy of Sibelius’s invention never ceases to amaze. More surprisingly perhaps, these performers actually had something new to say about it. Solveig Kringelborn, resplendent in turquoise blue though less vocally secure than some protagonists, contributed a childlike innocence and vulnerability that I found very touching, while Salonen showed real musicianship in never drowning out his soloist. The steely brilliance we usually expect in this score was exchanged for a gentler narrative style.

Ravel’s pagan passions (to a palsied pink glow), with wordless chorus, seemed thematically unrelated. Here was more material for the conductor to demonstrate his control of texture as well as the kind of boyish virtuoso brilliance that delights in extremes of tempo. The orchestra responded in kind notwithstanding a few flaws. The encores (denied to listeners on BBC Radio 3 – Ed) were a beautifully poised and translucent conversation between ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye and some hell-for-leather Sibelius, Lemminkäinen’s Return, obviously (too obviously?) designed to bring the house down. Both items were announced from the platform with the bullish conviction of an artiste who has learnt crowd control and found unlikely acclaim in Los Angeles. In every sense he remains a conductor-composer to watch.

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