thu 23/03/2023

Julia Bullock, Philharmonia, Salonen, RFH review – bewitching dreamscapes | reviews, news & interviews

Julia Bullock, Philharmonia, Salonen, RFH review – bewitching dreamscapes

Julia Bullock, Philharmonia, Salonen, RFH review – bewitching dreamscapes

Rarefied magic from Ravel and Britten, culminating in a fairy-tale ballet masterpiece

Julia Bullock, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in Britten's 'Les illuminations'All images by Mark Allan

Nobody would wish it this way, but orchestras playing on a stage specially built-up for distancing to a handful of invitees have never sounded better in the Royal Festival Hall.

The Philharmonia’s outgoing principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is a master of exquisite textures, and Ravel, arguably the greatest orchestrator ever, has come under his sympathetic microscope on many occasions. It says much for Britten that his writing for strings and human voice stood the comparison with the French master last night in an enchanted hour of music.

Britten’s haunting response to Rimbaud’s Les illuminations is often performed with a tenor soloist ever since the composer’s partner Peter Pears made it his own. But it was written for a soprano, and American Julia Bullock had a very startling take on it. Often there’s a weird geniality about the "savage parade" unfolded by poet and composer, but Bullock played it out as a series of very disturbed visions – a bad trip, perhaps, more akin to the nightmare of Schoenberg’s psychotic monodrama Erwartung.

Julia BullockHere, though, the writing is resolutely tonal, and there’s no love-song more exquisite than the A major “Antique”, where violins slowly mass behind the arpeggiating vocal line. What stood behind Bullock’s more troubling interpretation I’d love to know, but she sang it all with compelling thrust, brilliance and luminosity. A total performance, and much enriched by a fuller string section than we often get for the piece, with five double basses rumbling primeval sounds.

A unusually large orchestra for the times was the order of the day, with four percussionists, celesta and harp – but only horns among the brass. Part of the beauty of Ravel is that he makes us think we hear trumpets and trombones. Not so much in the bittersweet orchestration of the piano-solo Pavane pour une infante défunte, but in the myriad perspectives of Ma mère l’Oye.

The “Mother Goose” tales the composer originally chose to illustrate took the form of five easy pieces for piano duet, but there’s much more to the complete fairy ballet than the transformative colourings of the orchestral suite. The fanfares of Elfinland set up a wide-eyed expectation; there’s only one extra "tableau,", the buzz and whirl of the "Spinning-wheel Dance”, but those expectant crowds of miniature spectators, strings tapping their excited approval with the wood of the bow, and the swooning glissandi provide such a delicious context for the tales of Perrault and others. Esa-Pekka SalonenSalonen made the perfect case for this as a curtain-raiser in a 2009 Philharmonia Prom with a mesmerizing Boléro at the other end; the fact that it was now the culminating glory perhaps inclined him to be a bit more portentous with slower tempi, and there were some rather too detectable gear-changes when all should glide. But the hallucinatory string chords and the touching simplicity of the many woodwind solos demonstrated the refinement of Philharmonia playing at its very best. We lucky few counted our blessings to be there, but you’ll be spellbound if you listen on Radio 3 or catch the streaming when it returns to the Philharmonia’s website.

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