Outstanding Lutosławski from Salonen and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Lutosławski: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jennifer Koh (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, 21. 3. 2013. (CD)

Ravel: Ma mère l’oye (1911)
Lutosławski: Symphony No. 4 (1988-92)
Les espaces du sommeil (1975)
Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra (1984-85)
Ravel: La valse (1920)

This concert, the final installment of ‘Woven Words’, the Philharmonia’s Lutosławski centenary celebration, contained almost two hours of outstanding music, played with dedication, brilliance and verve. Sad to report then that somehow the whole seemed to total less than the sum of its parts, largely as a result of programming that placed the Fourth Symphony, surely the work on the programme with the greatest intellectual and emotional impact, second out of the five pieces played. Everything that followed seemed to be something of an anticlimax, and the placement seemed particularly ironic given the place that the symphony has in Lutosławski’s oeuvre, as his final major work.

The concert opened with a performance of Ma mère l’oye that Salonen allowed to unfold at a natural, unforced pace but with no lack of drama when appropriate. Textures were transparent and luminous and there was fine solo playing from the wind throughout.

The performance of Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony which followed made clear just how engaging and varied a work this is. The novelty and attractiveness of the sound world was immediately apparent with the opening deep tread of double basses swiftly followed by magical swooping figures played by the two harps. The aleatory sections were exceptionally finely handled, with the brass in particular achieving a fine balance between freedom of expression and the creation of a coherent sense of purpose within these segments.

The chamber music-like sections towards the end of the work were gripping with real engagement between each section as ideas were passed backwards and forwards between the string soloists. Throughout Salonen kept a fine grip on proceedings, ensuring that the performance built momentum, that every detail of the orchestration could be heard and that climaxes had force and weight. This was a really fine performance of the piece.

The two works that followed after the interval provided an interesting contrast. Although both are nominally works for soloist accompanied by orchestra the soloist has a very different role in each work.

In Les espaces du sommeil, a setting of poems by Robert Desnos, the baritone soloist floats above lush textures provided by substantial orchestral forces. Matthias Goerne provided a tremendously subtle performance with highly nuanced dynamics and phrasing. At times he dropped to a whisper only to emerge gradually from the orchestral background. On the few occasions when the score requires it Goerne rose powerfully above the orchestra to make a dramatic point.

By way of contrast in Chain 2 the violin takes part in an extended dialogue with an orchestra of markedly reduced forces. Throughout the work, however, the violin soloist seems to take the lead and there is little doubt who is in command of the direction of the work. The demands of this piece on the soloist, in terms of emotional, stylistic and technical range are enormous and Jennifer Koh not only demonstrated that she was fully able to meet these requirements but also that she was able to bring the diverse elements of the work together in a cohesive whole. Her playing was highly virtuosic and yet always at the service of the score – an outstanding performance on all counts. The Philharmonia provided supple and stylish support to both Koh and Goerne, although there were a few occasions in Chain 2 where the accompaniment could have been more polished.

The concert ended with La valse. At the outset the Philharmonia seemed to be somewhat distracted, either by another change in orchestral forces or by the change in style, and the first few minutes were somewhat tentative. As the piece progressed it gained momentum, however, and the final bars were appropriately stylish and dramatic.

Such a shame, then, that the effectiveness of the music making this evening was inhibited by programming that seemed to diminish rather than enhance the works being presented. Nonetheless, this was an evening of outstanding music making and further evidence of the dedication of Salonen and his players to the cause of Lutosławski’s music.

Carl Dowthwaite