Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Salonen @ Royal Festival Hall, London

1 March 2012

This year finds Esa-Pekka Salonen and The Philharmonia exploring the music of Beethoven, including performances of the odd numbered symphonies at the Royal Festival Hall, a cycle of the piano concertos (with Lang Lang) at the Royal Albert Hall, and a complete cycle of the symphonies at the Bonn Beethovenfest in October.

This concert brought a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony prefaced by two other works from the Austro-German tradition. The first of these was the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, composed by Brahms in 1873. Although it is now believed that the theme on which the variations are based, the St Anthony Chorale, was not actually written by Haydn, its distinctive melody provides the basis for one of Brahms’s finest works, here given an excellent performance under Salonen’s baton. Each variation was carefully delineated, orchestral balance throughout was exemplary, and there was a strong sense of elation in the rousing finale.

This was followed by a similarly impressive performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. Composed in Los Angeles in 1942, the concerto uses the twelve tone system that Schoenberg pioneered twenty years earlier, although its autobiographical leanings and its roots in Viennese classicism make it one of the composer’s more accessible later works. Mitsuko Uchida, a longstanding advocate of the piece, gave a performance that communicated warmth and drama, while Salonen provided a superbly focused and incisive account of the orchestral accompaniment.

Uchida responded to the audience’s enthusiastic applause with an encore, the second of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces of 1911. With a playing time of barely a minute, it was an unusual but apposite choice.

Salonen’s performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was distinguished by both forward momentum and clarity of texture, helped by the choice of natural trumpets and hard timpani sticks (although violins were not divided antiphonally). Although the two middle movements were slightly reserved, the first movement was full of joyous energy, and the finale was delivered at an exhilaratingly fast tempo. The playing of the Philharmonia, once again, was first class.

Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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