Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen @ Royal Festival Hall, London

22 March 2009

This third instalment in The Philharmonia’s City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 featured what is arguably the greatest work to emerge from that era, Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

First on the programme, however, were two compositions by another composer central to the period, Alban Berg.

Berg had been a student of Schoenberg for four years when he completed his Piano Sonata, Opus 1, in 1908. Although following a formal classical structure, the sonata’s romantic gestures are suffused with chromaticism, pointing the way towards the composer’s later style. The sonata was here performed by Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who provided a swiftly paced and passionate performance.

By the time of his Chamber Concerto (1923-25), Berg had followed Schoenberg into the realm of atonality. Almost by way of compensation for having abandoned tonal moorings, Berg’s music is often intricately structured, and this is especially true of the Chamber Concerto with its strict formal groundplan. It is a measure of Berg’s genius as a composer that such an intellectually rigorous work is able to communicate such richness of feeling.

For this performance, Uchida was joined by violinist Christian Tetzlaff and 13 wind players from The Philharmonia under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. The ideal instrumental balance suggested careful preparation, and the performance captured the otherworldliness of the Adagio second movement and the energy of the last movement. It was good to hear the repeat in the finale, which is rarely included despite its importance in Berg’s design.

Given that Salonen and the orchestra performed Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Amsterdam, Cologne, Vienna and Madrid in the weeks preceding this concert, one might have expected a highly polished interpretation. However, the results were somewhat mixed in this performance. Salonen was notably animated in the first movement, and the main climax of the movement was suitably engulfing. Elsewhere an element of reserve in the string playing took something away from the music’s expressionistic intensity.

The symphony’s two inner movements were notable for their clarity and control rather than their excitement. The Adagio brought an expressiveness from the strings that seemed leashed earlier, and the result was luminous and moving. Unfortunately, the climax was marred by two mistimed cymbal crashes, and the coda was slow and hushed without conveying the intensity of this most profound of symphonic conclusions.

In summary, this was an interesting realisation of the symphony, but ultimately a little disappointing after the stirring performances of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie earlier in the City of Dreams series.

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