Salonen and Philharmonia Make Impact in Dresden

Dresden Music Festival 2013 logo







GermanyGermany Lutosławski, Beethoven StravinskyPhilharmonia Orchestra London/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Semperoper, Dresden, Germany, 26.5.2013 (MC)

Witold Lutoslawski:  Musique funèbre,
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92,
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring,

Esa Pic credit Sonja Werner
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Pic credit Sonja Werner

This was my first look at the Philharmonia since I attended their splendid performance under Lorin Maazel of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Symphony No.1 in D major at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester in April 2011. In many respects their playing under Esa-Pekka Salonen, now in his fifth season as principal conductor and artistic advisor, in this Dresden concert was even better. As the orchestra was taking their seats at the Semperoper few could fail to notice the relatively young age of the orchestra so if they are playing this well now there is surely much improvement to come; which certainly augurs well for the future of this impressive orchestra.

To mark the centenary of the birth of Witold Lutoslawski the Philharmonia chose to play his Musique funèbre. Written for large string orchestra it was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of Béla Bartók that fell in 1955 but it wasn’t completed until 1958. This single movement score with four linked distinct sections Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogee and Epilogue is a challenge for the finest orchestras. With the stylish Salonen conducting with long, flowing tai chi-like movements his Philharmonia strings played smoothly with impressive unity creating a dark and increasingly anguished soundworld. Finally only an isolated solo cello was left and the work seemed over far too soon.

Next came Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A major. Completed in 1812 this was the symphony which Wagner famously described as the “apotheosis of the dance”. I recall a recording of a live performance that Wilhelm Furtwängler gave with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943 at the Alte Philharmonie where I felt he must have been feeding his players with raw meat such was the force, breath-taking intensity and concentration of the performance. Maestro Salonen’s interpretation may not have achieved the same degree of sheer power as Furtwängler but when he asked his players for strong dramatic playing he certainly got it. In the opening movement Salonen attained a sense of nobility and in the Allegretto he powerfully ratcheted up the weight and tension whilst always remaining in total control. Decisive with thrilling and vibrant playing the Scherzo movement just raced along. The so-called ‘Pilgrims Hymn’ of the trio had a conspicuous reverence with the woodwind and horns leaving plenty of room to breathe. With a sensation of rapid rhythmic drive the final movement was played with real commitment and considerable reserves of energy. Impressive was the stamina and elevated level of controlled intensity that the Philharmonia showed throughout.

This is the centenary of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring being introduced at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. Not surprisingly performances of what is probably the most controversial work in all music history are coming thick and fast. Earlier this month I attended a concert of The Rite of Spring at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall played by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena which I found filled with an overwhelming savage power; probably the finest account I have heard in concert of this visceral masterpiece. How would the Philharmonia fare?

In the first part of the Rite, depicting the spring-like renewal of nature, the earthy reediness of the opening bassoon solo and the flickering and rotating woodwind created that otherworldly quality that I like to hear. Gripping the attention like a vice, the violent stamping of the Harbingers of Spring – Dance of the Adolescents provided a threatening atmosphere punctuated by bubbling woodwind figures. Spring Rounds quickly built up an unsettling sense of aggression with Salonen’s players releasing plenty of weight and volume. Rapidly moving, savage yelps and earth shattering pounding took centre stage in the Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes. Throughout the Procession of the Sage the nerve- jangling disturbance that dominated was difficult to bear. A short respite was provided in the Adoration of the Earth: The Sage with a beautifully played dreamy passage. In the closing section of the first part of the Dance of the Earth Salonen unleashed a robust outburst of aggression yet did not quite achieve the wild, brutal and toxic power contained in the performances with the most impact.

The second section, The Sacrifice, is an atonement and thanksgiving to the all-consuming power of nature. Soon a quite magical scene of eerie calm developed with impressive contributions from the confident woodwind. In the Mystic Circle of the Adolescents it felt like glimmers of optimism were to be found in a tormented world yet disturbingly one virgin is chosen for sacrifice. Hammer blows of conflict infused the Glorification of the Chosen One. In the Ritual Action of the Ancestors a thawing of the tension and a brief silence felt effective but extremely short-lived. A heady atmosphere of optimism was generated in the Ritual Action of the Ancestors containing a contrasting section of wild aggression. Forceful with a hostile ferocity Stravinsky strains, yelps and claws at his rhythms and harmonies in the Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One. Here Salonen demanded unremitting assaults of hammer blows that continued to a shattering climax.

Michael Cookson