To call a concert an exhilarating, gripping experience with lots of unexpected contrasts twists and turns may seem an over the top description. But last night the Philharmonia’s smashing mix of Ravel and Lutosławski was a magical journey across 20th century repertoire without compromise and with a true visionary at the helm.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is a conductor/composer that is both inspirational and a great front for contemporary music. His tireless promotion of less popular and neglected repertoire a particular streak that runs through his work with the Philharmonia. A short film that preceded the performance was a touching introduction to the composer with a particular emphasis on EPS’s sense of duty to spread Lutosławski’s music to a new generation of audiences. And based on the outcome of this concert I am very interested to hear more of his music. He seems to bridge the gap between Debussy, Ravel , Stravinsky and the 60’s electronic avant-garde. But all with a purely acoustic sound. Some of the spectral effects and unusual combination of instruments brings surprise and is a reflection on his compositional methods based on chance. The overall effect of his 4th Symphony has a similar impact and quality to Stockhausen’s Mittwoch. Using the orchestra as a box of tricks, unleashing unexpected pairings and lush (alternating with harsh) contrasting textures. Despite the echoes of other works all three pieces by Lutosławski were individual and distinctive. The melodic line being kept lean and piercing, articulating the material with unfolding gradations.
The opening Ravel was conducted with utmost delicacy by a batonless EPS controlling the orchestra with balletic precision and astounding refinement. The suite permeated by playful accents and ethereal textures. A fantastic opener to an action packed evening.
Symphony No4 opens with a fantastic, otherworldly, shimmering conversation between strings and two harps. As imposing and as grand an opening as Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and with an equally unexpected development. He takes the formal arrangement of the instruments and cascades melodic sections from the timpani and horns down to the strings. Prominent roles for trumpet and the thundering piano add to some overwhelming tutti. There is a sense of fascination with the orchestra and its many possibilities. He keeps exploring and inventing throughout the body of the work. And concludes with a grandiose coda that brings clarity and resolution. The reception was thunderous and led to Salonen picking up the score and lifting it in the air in appreciation. Surely a work that means a lot to him personally as he was then starting his tenure with the LA Philharmonic who commissioned the work from the composer. And he conducted it with great skill and vibrancy.
Les espaces du sommeil was a wonderfully dreamy piece based on the surrealist poem by Robert Desnos. The composition of the constituent parts were inspired by the syllabic distribution of the piece. Written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau it makes use of the hushed baritonal voice to create an atmosphere of dreamy lightness in the opening passages. Goerne adding his Germanic vocal heft was a good choice for this work that seems deceptively simple, but has quite a few high lying sustained passages toward the finale.
Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra has to be one of the most strikingly original and complex pieces ever written for violin. Jennifer Koh more than rose to the occasion, in the process sacrificing quite a few bow hairs. The intensity of the piece and the demands on the performer are phenomenal in terms of speed and agility. There is a great listening guide presented by the soloist on the Philharmonia’s website.
Ravel’s La valse was a great finale to this exquisite programme demonstrating the transparency of the orchestra’s string section and with EPS cutting through the distorted Viennese Waltz appearances with wit and fire. He managed to extract so much detail and force from the orchestra that the final burst was utterly glorious. In the concert’s context it almost felt as a farewell to the Austrian dream in the ashes of the Second World War instead of a ballet composition from 1920. A wrap up of a truly memorable evening laced with lots of challenging repertoire performed to the highest standard.
All the contents of the season’s programme can be found here, do have a read if you want to know more about the composer and the performers.