The Philharmonia Orchestra’s series City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 might justifiably be accused of focusing on Berg and Mahler at the expense of the era’s other composers.
But it is hard to complain when the performances are as outstanding as the ones in this concert.
The Violin Concerto that Berg wrote in 1935 is perhaps the finest example of his ability to take the serial composition techniques of Schoenberg and produce music which is moving and accessible. And given the sort of commitment demonstrated by Christian Tetzlaff in this performance, terms such as serial and atonal become pretty much irrelevant. Tetzlaff seemed wholly at one with the piece, his fantastic dexterity devoted solely to communicating the drama, radiance and poignancy of the music. Esa-Pekka Salonen oversaw an orchestral accompaniment which was lucid and strong, although not always quite accommodating of Tetzlaff’s sudden pianissimos.
Tetzlaff responded to the subsequent applause with an encore, the slow movement from Bach’s Third Violin Sonata, an appropriate choice given that Berg included a quotation of Bach’s music in the concerto.
There are few musical experiences more devastating than a great performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. This is exactly what Salonen delivered in the concert’s second half. From the steady tread of the opening march to the cataclysm of the finale, this was a reading which combined incredible tension with total lucidity, the Philharmonia Orchestra contributing playing of surpassing dedication, precision and potency.
In terms of interpretive detail, Salonen’s decision to place the Andante third rather than second was something of a surprise, reversing what is now understood to be Mahler’s final thoughts. However, with luminous orchestral playing and a climax of enormous ardour, the order of movements was highly convincing in terms of providing a sense of contrast before the onslaught of the final movement.
And as it should be, the 30 minute finale was the culmination of the performance, a compelling account of the baleful introduction leading into a march of terrifying intensity and gut wrenching climaxes. The brief passages of rarefied beauty amidst the storms were treated with breathtaking sensitivity. The sudden fortissimo chord which concludes the symphony was crushing in its impact.
A few people unfortunately started clapping before Salonen had even lowered his baton, suggesting they hadn’t actually appreciated the performance at all. A more subtle and moving response was provided by the orchestra, who initially refusal to stand in order to allow Salonen to take an extra bow for his superb interpretation.
A broadcast of the concert can be heard on Radio 3 at 19:00 on Tuesday 2 June.