JWR Articles: Live Event - Philharmonia Orchestra (Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen) - September 10, 2010
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Philharmonia Orchestra

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EMI Classics 0724357294126
“Too loud” overwhelms art

There’s nothing like a meaty, full-blown fortissimo to get the blood roaring and the spirit excited. But when gleaming, round power becomes near-rasp pontificating, it’s the music that suffers most: in the fashion of Roman Coliseum entertainments most fans devour the art-kill with glee.

In this evening’s main event, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen stepped into the ring and let his talented charges off the sonic leash, producing more decibels than a rock band’s speaker-tower but leaving subtlety, phrase endings and balance TKO’d after the second-round bell.

Egged on by the rapturous crowd for a death soundscape that woke the departed instead of mourning them, the resultant encore positively pegged the soundboard meters with the rawest Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin on record.

The prospect of four hours of Tristan und Isolde in Salonen’s volume-drenched hands fills one with trepidation for tomorrow’s semi-staged production.

Stravinsky’s ever-popular “Gallop” completed the aural assault in an entirely appropriate circus-like air.

The concert began with only a few hints of the sonic bombast to come.

Batonless for the French repertoire (more on that in a moment), Ravel’s exquisitely crafted Tombeau—once the principal oboe settled down after the opening measures—gave many moments of pleasure. The only cautions being the same sort of untidy entries and unsatisfying final chords that begin to appear whenever Salonen watches the music emerge rather than actively recreating it.

As much as conductors need to inspire the musicians to greater artistic heights, their primary job is to give clear, “legible” indications of pulse, reassuring cues and—for the true maestros—shape to the phrases (melodic and inner voices), infusing them with the same sort of spontaneity that the composer likely (for past masters no one will ever really know: that’s the stuff of discourse) had when they were first imagined.

In the main, Salonen uses both hands to stereophonically communicate the beat. Yet when one is dropped (especially if the other is holding the baton) and begins playing a round of pass-the-beat between two very different indicators (flesh and balsa wood), it’s not surprising that a few of the ever-attentive musicians (even the concertmaster got “fooled” in the Prokofiev) are drawn into the trap of missed, early or late entries (all of these were in evidence at various times during this program).

In the far more lush Trois Nocturnes, “Nuages” was curiously bloodless—its pastels all faded. “Fêtes” was the finest overall achievement of the night (the muted trumpets were absolutely superb; the tympani did as asked and played TOO LOUD to fit in with the tableau, but compared to the seismic eruptions to come, that was just a small oversight).

It’s a great pity that more care and nurturing doesn’t emanate from the podium. Left to their own devices (sometimes literally, see “watches” above), the Philharmonia Orchestra produces some beautiful orchestral tone. The first violins, initially, seemed right up to the esteemed level of their 1983 colleagues in the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Klaus Tenstedt (see Historical Perspective below) only to falter in the more intricate stratospheric requirements of the final sections of Romeo and Juliet.

Special mention to the women of the Mozart-Ensemble Luzern. Perhaps not a good idea (or necessary given the several minutes of instrument “shuffling” between Ravel and Debussy) to have had them sit through Tombeau (it took a few measure into “Sirènes” for them to collectively find their focus). Once in their groove, the wordless contributions were a most welcome new texture.

If only Salonen had sculpted their lines in the storied traditional of Robert Shaw (cross-reference below) then the myth’s sailors would have more believably been drawn toward the alluring siren call. JWR

Historical Perspective

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 6
EMI Classics 0724357294126
1983 90’40”
Klaus Tennstedt, London Philharmonic
Four and one-half stars

Klaus Tennstedt at the top of his game crafts a truly spectacular performance. It’s hard to imagine a better result from the strings of the London Philharmonic—most especially the violins whose forays into the upper reaches are greedily anticipated rather than nervously awaited. At the centre here is the “Andante” whose apparently “remote key” (rethinking E-flat as D-sharp and its relation to the dominant of A minor reveals all) is just the beginning of differences to what precedes and follows. The opening’s near-mystical prophesy goes on to be thoughtfully revealed by Tennstedt without letting the anguish and melodrama overwhelm the harmonic and melodic bounty.

The Finale begins with atmosphere to burn before the first major climax immediately slips back to its minor centre and the hunt is on. Much of the movement is spent brandishing the composer’s near unrelenting shower of demonic, orchestral power: a cleansing of a troubled soul that has few equals. Tennstedt is acutely aware of the potential for so much bombast to drown out the emotional/musical content and keeps a tight rein on his near ensemble-perfect charges. But from the second gong through to the final devastating pizzicato, the music is well and truly driven: such a thrilling result is largely absent from twenty-first century performances. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

A must-do excursion is the round trip to Mount Pilatus. Lake boat, cog-wheel train, cable car, gondola, feet! and city bus are all utilized along this half-day trip to the peak at 7,000 feet. JWR

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Conductor - Esa-Pekka Salonen
Comparative conductor - Klaus Tennstedt
Repertoire:
Le tombeau de Couperin - Maurice Ravel
Trois Nocturnes - Claude Debussy
Scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 - Sergei Prokofiev
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