sat 18/11/2017

Bavouzet, Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Bavouzet, Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Albert Hall

Bavouzet, Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Albert Hall

An assortment of contemporary music proves itself a box of delights

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra gave their audience as much to ponder as enjoy

From Russian “avant-garde constructivism” to Estonian minimalism via a jazz-inspired French concerto and the defiant originality of Scriabin – last night’s Prom from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra had a lot of ground to cover. I can imagine few pieces more antithetical – in spirit as much as style – as the self-reflexive indulgence of Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy and Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No 4 with its meditative asceticism; it says much of Salonen’s persuasive energy that it was a dialogue rather than a squabble that ensued amongst this rag-bag of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I can’t have been alone last night in hearing Alexander Mosolov’s extraordinary and vivid orchestral miniature The Foundry live for the first time. A favourite of Henry Wood himself (and programmed an astonishing seven times during the Proms of the 1930s), the work’s four minutes pulsate with the clanging, hissing energy of the machine age. A celebration of that briefest period of Soviet artistic freedom and experimentation, its layered textures and rhythms rejoice in the unlikely beauty of automated power. Far from rounding any of the work’s rougher corners, Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra delighted in their raw edge, with the eight-strong horn section (the extra four a gift courtesy of the Scriabin which was to follow – what an evening for brass lovers) rising to their feet to project their unanimous bellow over the edgy fussing and twitching of strings and wind.

Jolted from post-work stupor by this punch of an opener, the more considered business of the evening began. While Mosolov’s Foundry was a brief musical glimpse of what might have been (the composer soon abandoned his modernist experiments under pressure from the newly conservative regime), Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No 4, Los Angeles which followed was a monument to ongoing rebellion against the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin, dedicated to imprisoned oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

While Pärt’s three early symphonies – the last composed a full 37 years before the Fourth – stage their rejection of the folk-influenced, state-sanctioned Russian style in their serialist influences, the fourth is the creature of his maturity. Sharing the same mystical "tintinnabuli" style with his choral works, the symphony treats its notional three movements to an unbuttoned, fluid approach, the simple themes shifting and developing freely across them.

Commissioned by Salonen during his time in Los Angeles, it was fitting that he should deliver the UK premiere. Only Pärt would mark a section Con sublimatà and only Salonen could risk quite so much stillness and delicacy in his approach. The opening high harmonics in the strings were driven forward solely by the occasional pluck of double basses or harp, this fragile harmonic impetus picked up later in the chime of percussion. Respecting the pared-back orchestration of the symphony (scored solely for strings and percussion) Salonen and the Philharmonia made little attempt to supplement absent tone colours, relishing instead the simplicity and precision of the writing. Sudden silences were a new and pervasive feature, truncating melodic attempts and stunting their development despite the work’s best attempts to persevere. Its limited chordal palette darker, less prone to the open-minded purity of fifths and octaves, this is a sombre work and one given full weight and conviction here.

Breaking the tension, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was dispatched with panache by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – a gallic shrug of a delivery summed up by the casual flip of his tails that followed a particularly climactic glissando. Though occasionally a little overpowered by orchestral forces in the tutti sections, the real joy of the performance was in the trickling clarity of Bavouzet’s lyrical asides, the bluesy twirls and twinklings projecting with all the intimacy of a solo Wigmore Hall recital. Staunch in their support, the orchestra delivered up some strong solo playing – the opening bassoon solo positively cooed, and the garrulous wind observations of the danse macabre were vivid in their commentary.

Continuing this year’s Scriabin line-up was The Poem of Ecstasy, the composer’s de facto fourth symphony. While I didn’t quite get the “languid desire” I was hoping for from the opening flute solo, the shifts and swells of this least bounded of Scriabin’s symphonic works quickly took hold. This single-movement symphony can easily lose pace, lost in its own self-reflexive texture-spirals, but Salonen’s clear sense of development guided it from the restless energy of the opening through to brass and organ-driven climax – an all-out assault on the ears – with unobtrusive efficiency.

Proving themselves in music that moved from absolute restraint to absolute surrender, Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra last night delivered a magical mystery tour of contemporary music that gave its audience as much to ponder as to enjoy.

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