After a Disappointing First Half, Sibelius Comes to the Rescue

01/05/2017

Salonen, Grieg, Sibelius: Lars Vogt (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Stéphane Denève (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 22.4.2017. (BJ)

Salonen Nyx
Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major Op.43

In 2010, eight years after composing Insomnia, Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the subject of sleepless night with a new orchestral work that treats it in more general terms. Taking his title, Nyx, from the ancient Greek female personification of night, he was concerned here to explore various mythical aspects of night, viewing her as “a creature of mystery, variability, veiledness, and secret fecundity,” and envisaging her darkness as “not so much the absence of light as the absence of certainty.”

Such a conception obviously offers fertile ground for imaginative musical treatment, and there are indeed some magically evocative sounds to be heard in the 20-minute course of the newer piece. Reviewing the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Insomnia, twelve years ago under Christoph Eschenbach’s direction, I was enraptured by a “clarity of thought within a musical idiom that stretches tonality without breaking it and ranges widely between enormous contrapuntal complexity, sheer motoric impulse, and a constantly fascinating interplay of rhythmic shapes.” I found it a masterpiece, fit to be ranked among a small handful of such triumphant late 20th- and early21st-century one-movement creations by the English composer Harrison Birtwistle and the German-born Hans Werner Henze. But I am forced to conclude that this time, though Nyx offers more pleasure than some other recent new works have provided, all those characteristics of uncertainty and veiledness seem to have militated against any similar strength and lucidity of line, without creating in their place a sense of mystery strong enough to carry at least this listener along with it.

After the evening’s thus somewhat disappointing opening, the performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto was not such as to raise the spirits. Lars Vogt is a serious and sensitive artist, but his playing on this occasion seemed almost perverse in its avoidance of anything remotely resembling sumptuousness of tone, and his rhythmic eccentricity especially in the finale inevitably confirmed the feeling that what we were hearing was not so much a performance of the work as a cerebral analysis of it.

Principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève did well to stay with his wayward soloist’s disruptive vicissitudes. He and the orchestra were certainly not to blame for the generally lackluster quality of the concert’s first half, and it was left to them to give us a compelling and indeed thrilling account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony after intermission.

It’s a pity the work is not heard as often these days as it used to be in American and British concert halls – it was indeed on the program of the first Philadelphia Orchestra concert I ever attended, superbly conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1964. The sheer richness of its musical sap was vividly realized under Stéphane Denève’s intensely concentrated leadership. I thought that occasionally, as at the beginning of the finale, his conscientiousness in affording inner parts sufficient prominence in the overall textural balance prevented a main melody from making its due effect. But with the help of lustrous tone from the heavy brass the symphony’s peroration rang out with awe-inspiring grandeur and majesty.

Bernard Jacobson

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