The items in Sunday evening’s Philharmonia concert formed a strange mix: Biber’s 1673 La Battalia, Beethoven’s second symphony from 1802 and Unsuk Chin’s 2016 work Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles. There seemed no logical relationship between them, and their joint programming made for some odd trade-offs in terms of the instruments on stage.
Biber’s short, eight-movement descriptive piece was allocated to a small string ensemble and harpsichord. The performance was slick, highlighting well the cacophony of the overlapping popular tunes in the second movement (it is truly ahead of its time, reminding the listener of multiple-orchestra works by Ives). The modern instruments imparted a more solid sonority to the musket-fire string-slapping, and the double bass in the rhythmic rough ostinato of ‘Der Mars’ provided more heft than a violone would have done, but the overall tone was too smooth and too dense; the edgier, more uncertain timbre of early strings would have better portrayed the rawness of the skirmish.
The second symphony is arguably the point at which Beethoven’s irascible character begins to emerge from his 18th-century musical foundations. His panic at impending deafness surfaces in the fractured nature of the first movement, with its sudden loud crashes from full orchestra, odd melodies that are split across instruments and the frantic string sawing that closes the movement. Essa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting style is fluid, but he retained a firm control of the orchestra, especially during the fluctuations of timbre and dynamic in the third movement. A few slightly ragged edges marred some of the more delicate, throw-away violin passages, but, in general, it was a pithy yet grand execution. The piece’s date, though, calls for a Haydn-sized ensemble and a grainy tone; the substitution of tap-timpani and natural trumpets for their modern equivalents was a step in the direction of historically-informed performance, but to surround them with large Romantic-era string sections (six double basses!) was oddly inconsistent.
The principal focus of the concert was the European première of Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles, a work for large forces – full orchestra, massive percussion section, organ, mixed chorus and children’s choir. In twelve short movements, Le Chant sets texts from poets as diverse as Pessoa, Shelley, Södergran, Christensen and Jiménez as a series of differently-timbred vignettes of Romantic reaction to the vastness of the cosmos. It is full of complex writing that includes ethereal unison singing from the children, vocal glissandi, whispering, busy contrapuntal passages, shimmering, ambient string-and-organ chords, tinkling tuned percussion and sonorous ‘Dr Phibes’ blasts from full organ – all given a highly competent performance by Salonen, the orchestra, and particularly the singers (Philharmonia Voices and Trinity Boys Choir). There is something of Ligeti’s outrageousness in the work (the huge repeated crescendi for full orchestra and gongs on the words ‘a scream at the sea’ in the eleventh movement), and there are passages that feel almost like Britten (the boys’ chorus and harp in the seventh movement, or the two part clashing-resolving section for boys’ voices in the final movement). The writing is multi-textured and multi-styled, although the poetry tends to the over-wrought: “the obscure consequence of absent glow” (in one line of the Pessoa) or “One last pepper tree is preaching in the desert” (Eeva-Liisa Manner).
The work is cerebral and eclectic: like the dishes in an expensive tasting menu, every movement is carefully considered for its contrasting texture and ‘flavour’; every element is judged for its contribution to the small-but-exquisite parcel that is presented to contrast with its companions. It is impressive and elegant, but there is little about it that speaks to the heart rather than the head, and, overall, it leaves one unsatisfied.