Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall, London

10 February 2008

This daring programme of 20th Century works drew a healthy and appreciative audience at the Royal Festival Hall last Sunday.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

This was Esa-Pekka Salonen‘s second concert as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra and he drew thrilling playing from the band.

It is evident that this partnership is going to be one of the most fruitful on London’s musical landscape.

Salonen’s tenure with the orchestra began last week with a stirring performance of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony as part of the Southbank’s Messiaen Festival. The Messiaen thread was continued with this concert that included his Oiseaux exotiques, one of his many works devoted to bird call. I must admit that I’m pretty suspicious of people who bang on about Christianity and most of the French composer’s musical output was an extension either of his Catholic beliefs or his obsession with birds.

Having said that, Oiseaux exotiques is – for all its fifteen minutes in length – a kaleidoscopic explosion of sound that beguiles the listener with its unique orchestration and virtuoso writing for piano (brilliantly executed here by Tamara Stefanovich) and dazzles the audience with its non-literal representation of birdsong. The playing of the paired down sections of the Philharmonia was infectious.

The concert had begun with a real rarity, so rare in fact it was a new one on me, namely Jolivet’s Cinq danses rituelles. Written by the French composer in 1939, this is a fascinating work, and one that owes much to The Rite Of Spring. In many ways the soundscape is similar, but its roots are firmly entrenched in the French tradition. There are echoes of Berlioz in the swaggering Danse du hros and there’s an undercurrent jazz-influence throughout. If you can imagine Debussy having written The Rite Of Spring, then this was it!

After the interval we were treated to one of the most thrilling performances of Stravinsky’s masterpiece I’ve ever been privileged to hear. For me The Rite of Spring remains the most startling piece of classical music from the last century. It is one of the few works whose ability to thrill, shock and amaze never diminishes on repeat hearings, especially when given such a pole-axing performance as here. The orchestra’s playing was quite simply astonishing from start to finish and the hairs on the back of my neck were still standing on end long after the climatic crash that concludes the work. If this is the kind of innovative programming and superb conducting and playing that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure has in store, then London’s concert-going audiences are in for a treat.

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