Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall
Safe first night of the season proves fatal for Berlioz stunner
“Lighting design”. Are there two more terrifying words to find in a concert booklet? Since I last went to a normal concert, it seems that the lunacy that is the tradition of bathing audience and stage in as much light as possible as if we were some kind of site of forensic investigation or a harvest of hash has been replaced - at least for symphonic dramas like Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette - by its twin pole of idiocy: lighting design (capital L, capital D). Last night, this meant traffic-light signalling helpfully reminding us when to feel sad (blue) or happy (orange).
Of all the works to signpost in this way, Romeo et Juliette is a particularly unwise choice. Colour is not something this relentlessly vivid music lacks. If you need extras to guide you through its dramatic contours (which follow a skeletal version of the Shakespeare play), something is going very wrong on the podium. And to an extent that’s exactly what was happening. Esa-Pekka Salonen was putting on a good brash show in the easy bits then playing it extra safe in the trickier ones.
The love theme trundled slowly and indulgently into earshot like a sloppy drunken kiss
The worse culprit at first seemed to be safety. Sedate speeds fatally undermined the Strophes aria - usually an early highlight - as harps, flute, cellos and Christianne Stotijn’s mezzo all struggled to keep together at such a languid pace. It did even worse things to the celebrated Queen Mab Scherzo. When done right, this movement should barely touch the ground. Here it rarely left it. It was more understandable - though still disappointing - that the massed choral interjections in Part Three were offered with so little lift.
Overcompensating for this caution, Salonen waved his arms around a lot elsewhere, engaging in crude colourism at the expense of careful sculpting or real passion. This proved costly. Moments of delicacy in the Love Scene were fleeting as the love theme trundled slowly and indulgently into earshot like a sloppy drunken kiss. Love themes are traditionally obliged to cause your heart to beat faster, not make you heave.
The solo contributions from Gerald Finley (as Friar Lawrence) and Paul Groves were committed, if under-rehearsed. Few orchestral solos stood out, except for the principal flautist’s efforts.
Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette is a fabulous score. There is magic on every page. But it takes time and love to do it justice. Even though Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra were celebrating the renewal of their vows last night (contract extended to 2016), there seemed to be little love in this performance.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Classical music
French modernism, classical piano concertos and a delectable collection of orchestral miniatures
Among the Christmas staples, it's a relief to find an imaginative take on a different theme
Hymning the human in a Nielsen masterpiece and the cosmic in a psychedelic epic by Busoni
Six of 2014's best seasonal releases
French Baroque specialists take musical journey around early 18th-century Europe
An earthbound Messiah lacks wonder and urgency
Christmas music from far and wide glowingly sung by a young, rising, gifted British choir
Dream team for Birtwistle, while the pianist shines in Ligeti and Messiaen
The Hilliards and Garbarek know how to play the building
Birtwistle’s new Piano Concerto dazzles, but that's only one course in an orchestral feast
Tribute showcases a master of both the miniature and the monumental
Russian symphonies, a seasonal ballet and a Norwegian guitarist's debut disc