Salonen’s Perceptive Beethoven – and with a Twist!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Kurtág, Beethoven: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Giselle Allen (soprano), Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), James Rutherford (baritone), Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.9.2012 (CC)

Kurtág – … quasi una fantasia … Op. 27
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 21
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

The programme was typically intriguing. Salonen’s decision to preface two Beethoven pieces with ten minutes of Kurtág was a masterstroke. Kurtág’s title for his 1987-88 work, a piece premiered in Berlin’s Philharmonie, refers to the first of Beethoven’s two sonatas, Op. 27 (surely the most famous of all that composer’s sonatas). Thereafter, the referencing is subtle, to say the least. Kurtág uses the acoustic space so that the audience – at least those in the stalls – is very much part of the process. Instrumentalists were placed in the boxes round the sides, in the aisles (I had a gentleman percussionist basically within touching distance) and at the doors. A harp, piano (played by Andsnes) and zither were on the stage itself; Salonen sat, alone, in the choir stalls in front of the organ. He didn’t enter separately, just stood up and began, a nice way to begin a piece that touches on the intangible and sits, often, at the extremities of audibility. There are four movements, which range from the frozen in time (the sudden plateau of the finale) to the unsettled “Wie ein Traumeswirren” second movement. The effect was hypnotic.

The gap for rearrangement to a traditional layout for the concerto was hardly enough time for the listener to re-orient himself to a more traditional mode of utterance, but, impressively, the Philharmonia launched into the opening orchestral exposition of Beethoven’s First Concerto as easily as if they had prefaced it with the Egmont Overture. Salonen brought the full range of dynamics to the score, fortes bright (natural trumpets), and the sense of youthful life was echoed by Andsnes, whose beautifully shaded entrance and impeccably clean articulation at speed was a joy. There was a clear link between soloist and conductor – both were absolutely on the same wavelength (contrast Salonen and the Philharmonia at the Royal Albert Hall in March this year in the Beethoven concertos with Lang Lang). Sforzati had real kick – yet were never ugly. The tempo for the Largo was flowing, and the whole movement was beautifully, lovingly sculpted. ‘Gentile’ was the keyword here; there were good, if not outstanding, clarinet solos from Mark van de Wiel. The finale was a bucolic romp, yet one that at the same time revealed so much technical control on the part of the protagonists.

There was even an encore – the last movement of the F major Sonata, Op. 54, a technically challenging piece that Andsnes dispatched with aplomb. The encore was a surprise, though – one wondered just how long the concert was to be (it actually finished around 10pm).

The Ninth itself was as intelligent and involving a reading as one can hope to hear. It might not have had the full-on fire of a Furtwängler, but one could not fault the integrity and homogeneity of Salonen’s reading, nor the orchestral response. The punchiness of Salonen’s Ninth was evident from the off; what became evident in time was the highlighting of Beethoven’s contrapuntal procedures (an integral part of his late style, of course) against a dynamic underlay which never gave in, even when the music seeks to calm itself. Hard sticks for the timpani made for an exciting Scherzo – with precious little slowing, if any, for the Trio.

The Adagio molto e cantabile flowed in an easy 4/4, but there was no sense of rush. The profundity of Beethoven’s so-called third period was here on full display, including a radiant blossoming for the viola theme. The finale burst on the scene in no uncertain fashion, and from thereon Salonen fashioned its dramatic narrative with supreme confidence. James Rutherford’s huge voice seemed perfect for the initial declamations. The solo group worked well together, with no one big personality standing out. Their finest moment came towards the end, with Giselle Allen ascending beautifully to the heights and, for once, no Wagnerian, Hans Hotter-ike outburst from the baritone. Perhaps Andrew Kennedy’s tenor was rather unassertive earlier – at “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen” – but it hardly mattered. The Philharmonia Chorus was on top form, alive to Salonen’s every demand – and he made many! Salonen revealed many insights along the way, not least the textures at “Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen” where he made the orchestra sound like some sort of Ligetian ocarina, as decimated a sound as one is likely to hear anywhere.

This is my second Ninth in only a few months. Barenboim’s Prom performance with the East West Divan Orchestra nearly exactly two months before was a mixed bag (see review); in contrast, Salonen’s sleek, exciting, oh-so-modern take was bracing, involving and left us feeling that Beethoven had been properly honoured.

Colin Clarke