Germany Musikfest Berlin 2013 (7) Debussy, Lutosławski, Ravel, Lutosławski, Matthias Goerne (baritone) Philharmonia Orchestra London/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 9.9.2013. (MC)
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, symphonic poem for orchestra (1892/94)
Lutosławski: Les Espaces du Sommeil for baritone and orchestra (1975)
Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) suite for orchestra (1911/12)
Lutosławski: Symphony No. 3 (1972/83)
The principal conductor of the London Philharmonia, Esa-Pekka Salonen, seems to specialise in the music of Lutoslawski. Earlier this year I attended a Philharmonia concert at the Dresden Musikfest 2103 and Lutoslawski’s Musique funèbre was the opening work on the programme. Tonight at the Musikfest Berlin 2013 the Philharmonia stayed on message playing Lutosławski’s Espaces du Sommeil and Symphony No. 3. To sweeten the pill the Philharmonia sensibly programmed two of the most appealing and memorable works in the orchestral repertoire – Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) and the suite from Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose).
It’s always a joy to hear Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune from 1894 and inspired by the poem of the same name by his friend, the French symbolist poet Mallarmé. Another delightful score, Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) originally written as a piano work for children, was orchestrated as a five section suite for orchestra in 1912. Salonen’s Philharmonia played both works well enough generating a reasonable degree of atmosphere in the Debussy and underlining the lovely melodies in the Ravel. Some meltingly beautiful woodwind contributions in both scores are worthy of note especially from the principal flute. Yet somehow the Philharmonia performances lacked a sense of full engagement. Missing tonight was that special degree of frisson, a little more fantasy, which can elevate good performances into great ones.
A composer himself Salonen understands these two Lutosławski works as well as anyone, having recorded them and other of the Polish composer’s scores with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra for Sony back in the 1990s. Salonen’s intimate knowledge of these tricky scores is palpable and, as I expected, he conducted them with real assurance. Lutosławski’s study of clouds of sounds and finding interesting and appealing music by composing in a linear atonal scheme is highly individual. This musical language can be technically and artistically challenging and often bewildering but it certainly has the ability to enthral an audience reasonably willing to concentrate. With its wide palette of exotic sounds the dream-like episodes of Les Espaces du sommeil under Salonen took on a dark, sinister quality. German baritone Matthias Goerne sang the French text by surrealist poet Robert Desnot with feeling and a sure projection. His tendency to growl out his words and slightly unclear diction (especially the word endings) may have been down to not singing in his native language. I did notice that Goerne’s tone improved when some heft was needed.
A masterpiece by Lutoslawski, this Symphony No.3 (1972/83) was my highlight of the evening a work that eminently suited the Philharmonia’s clean, precise playing. Astonishing orchestral colour of often driving energy was achieved by Salonen’s players that allowed the composer to take the listener on a roller-coaster ride from weighty clangourous climaxes to steely, cool episodes of quiet introspection. An astonishing work remarkably performed by the Philharmonia under Salonen the evening ended as a triumph for orchestra and the composer.