Salonen Turns Late Stravinsky Pieces into Vehicles of Fervent and Expressive Beauty

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky: Allan Clayton (tenor), Hélène Hébrard (mezzo-soprano), David Soar (bass), Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra,/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), St John’s Smith Square, London, 2.6.2016. (AS)Stravinsky, Requiem Canticles; Introitus (T S Eliot In memoriam); In memoriam Dylan Thomas; Mass; Elegy for JFK; Cantata

It was probably concerns about the potential size of the audience for this unusual programme that led the Philharmonia to move from the Royal Festival Hall to the much smaller St John’s on this occasion. Here was the third in the Orchestra’s “Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals” series, and it bore the subtitle “Faith”. In fact the concert was sold out, partly because the instrumentalists and singers were placed in front of the platform, rather than on it, which meant that fewer seats were available. This positioning had the effect of improving the venue’s acoustics, which can be rather hard, but at the cost of reducing the audience’s sightlines even more than is usual in this auditorium, with its unraked seating. For some of the works chorus members were placed to good effect in opposing sides of the balcony. Clearly this concert would have taken place in the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, had it not been closed at present for refurbishment. No doubt the fact that the concert was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 proved to be a major factor in this event’s financial viability.

In his programme note for the series Esa-Pekka Salonen had written: “The music of Stravinsky has been an essential part of my life for well over 30 years”, and what came out particularly in his performances was a quality of warmth and affection, so that works that in other hands can seem dry and intellectual became vehicles of fervent and expressive beauty.

My only reservation in the programme was that it opened with Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky’s last composition of any consequence. Even in the most detached reading, such as in the premiere recording by Robert Craft, this “pocket requiem”, as the composer described it, has a hauntingly potent feeling of nearness to death that reflects Stravinsky’s fears and feelings at this late stage in his life. How much better it would have been if this work’s extraordinarily potent and atmospheric Postlude, with its bells and astringent piano interjections, had brought the concert to an end, especially in such a heartfelt performance as that given by Salonen.

The concert was arranged as a continual performance, with works linked by the sound of Russian bells, no interval, and a request (faithfully observed) that there be no applause until the end of the concert. A potent atmosphere was thus created, enhanced by projections on a large screen well behind the performers that provided not only surtitles but photos and appropriate linking texts between the works. These visual elements were beautifully created by David Edwards in a manner that provided useful information but avoided any distraction from the music making itself.

A notable feature in the Mass and the Cantata particularly was the beautifully clear and technically immaculate singing of Philharmonia Voices, a professional group that comprises young singers. Not only was this youthfulness evident visually but in the group’s fresh quality of tone production. Hélène Hébrard sang attractively in Requiem Canticles and the Cantata and managed the difficult vocal line of the solo part in Elegy for JFK adroitly, while David Soar’s firm bass tones were heard to good effect in Requiem Canticles. But the outstanding soloist was the tenor Allan Clayton. He projected the tricky solo part of In memoriam Dylan Thomas with great skill, and he was outstanding in the Cantata, not only technically and with a beautiful quality of tone, but in the way that he conveyed the varying characters of the old English texts set by Stravinsky in this work. The various instrumental ensembles drawn from the Philharmonia Orchestra all played with distinction, and it was wonderful to hear these superbly crafted works, rarely heard live, emerge so vibrantly under Salonen’s inspirational direction.

Alan Sanders  

Readers with access to the BBC iPlayer can listen to the concert here for 30 days from the date of transmission


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