Passion unleashed at the Royal Festival Hall.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor’s fourth and final concert this season was aptly titled Poems of Ecstasy, as Karina Canellakis had chosen four works suffused with love, yearning, abandonment and, well – ecstasy. This programme certainly wasn’t for the faint hearted, as the heady combination of Boulanger, Wagner, Ravel and Scriabin was sure to cast a potent spell over the audience and set the pulses racing. But at the last minute pianist Cédric Tiberghien tested positive for Covid, and as it wasn’t possible to find a replacement for Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand at such short notice, the piece was dropped from the programme.
The audience was audibly disappointed at the pre-concert announcement, but there was little the LPO management could do under the circumstances. The order of the programme was rejigged, with the revised second half consisting of only one work – Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4 (The Poem of Ecstasy), which coming in at just under 25 minutes made for a very short concert.
Despite not being able to hear the distinguished French pianist Cédric Tiberghien in the Ravel, the sense of disappointment was soon extinguished by the high-voltage conducting and playing of the remaining three works in the programme. Lili Boulanger’s exquisite mini tone poem, D’un soir triste (Of a sad evening) was written in 1918, the year this prodigiously gifted young composer died at the tragically early age of 25. Its title in many ways belies the passion that’s present in every bar, with Boulanger creating a vivid musical canvas replete with colourful, unsparing orchestration. Canellakis and the orchestra revelled in its heady intensity, delivering a blisteringly intense reading of a work that deserves to be heard more often.
“…four works suffused with love, yearning, abandonment and, well – ecstasy”
The following work needed no introduction – Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, given here in its orchestral version. Canellakis caught the tension from the first bar and managed to sustain it until we finally reached the eventual resolution of the famous ‘Tristan chord’ at the end. The sense of sehnsucht or longing was present throughout, the bars of silence as telling as the others. Climaxes grew organically, nothing was forced, while Canellakis’ scrupulous attention to detail, phrasing and dynamics resulted in a performance that was both moving, and uplifting – and the orchestra’s playing was quite simply spellbinding.
There was certainly no holding back in Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4 – aptly titled The Poem of Ecstasy. The Russian composer certainly didn’t, given that he scored it for massive orchestral forces – containing nine horns, six trumpets, a battery of percussion and an organ, in addition to an expanded woodwind section. Creating a myriad of orchestral colours throughout its single movement structure, Scriabin establishes a sound world where nothing seems to resolve musically. The opening theme on a trumpet appears repeatedly, here faultlessly and mesmerizingly played by Paul Beniston, but musically we’re kept in suspense as to where it’s going. Eventually it resolves in the work’s crashing, ear-splitting climax, and we finally get a sense of well-earned musical release.
Canellakis marshalled her forces superbly, never allowing the dense orchestration to blur musical textures, and every section of the orchestra played as though their lives depended on it. It’s a shame we must wait until next season for Canellakis to return, but based on this concert, it’ll be more than worth it.