BBC Proms reviews

Prom 44: Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen @ Royal Albert Hall, London

17 August 2011

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Prom 44 saw the return of the Philharmonia Orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall to play an all-Russian programme under Esa-Pekka Salonen. The first half concentrated solely on the work of Shostakovich, opening with his under-performed The Age Of Gold suite, tonight making only its third ever Proms appearance.

It saw the Philharmonia in confident mood, delivering the piece in playful style. For Salonen it was a comfortable day at the office, as he marshalled the orchestra with leisurely cajoling and informal gesturing. The pleasing lightness of tone, supplemented by grandiose, rhythmic arrangements served as a reminder that Shostakovich’s orchestral music is not always barbed, anguished and self-scrutinising. The third movement even showcased moments of humour, aided by the fanciful, darting woodwind section of the Philharmonia. The accomplished playing of the Philharmonia ensured it came over as quite an unburdened work, in stark contrast to the intensity present within the next piece, his Violin Concerto No. 1.

Composed during the height of Soviet political repression, it is one of Shostakovich’s most personal and deeply felt works, and it was markedly more sombre and heavier than the Age Of Gold suite. Tonight, the expressive, plaintive opening violin solo was played by the talented Lisa Batiashvili (who has had first hand experience of political oppression in her homeland Georgia). The opening two movements were played with restraint and discipline before being supplanted by an unsettling, visceral physicality for the closing half, although tonight it did not quite elicit the heightened emotional response that other performances of the concerto have. The Philharmonia returned to the stage to play a brief encore of Shostakovich’s Lyrical Waltz from his Seven Dolls Dances Suite, which provided a soothing, regenerative musical balm after the caustic overtones of earlier violin concerto.

The second half of the programme began with the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The resounding opening brass and timpani set the tone, resulting in something of an uplifting orchestral tour-de-force. The Philharmonia ensured the piece retained the sense of magic present within the original ballet, whilst also affirming it as a piece rich in episodic melody and musical vivacity. By this stage Salonen was meticulous, measured and masterful in his conducting.

Initially it seemed an unusual programming decision to close the concert with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca de Rimini ahead of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Yet, this would be to underplay the merits of what actually is quite an intriguing piece. Written in 1876, in many ways it foreshadowed the bombast and orchestral thrust found in his 4th Symphony, whilst also serving as a precursor to the reined-in melodic quality of his 5th Symphony and overbearing melancholy of his 6th. It was another adept performance by the Philharmonia, as they demonstrated over the course of the evening their in-depth understanding and unerring ability to execute each piece with versatility and panache.

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