One of the most rewarding achievements for any creative artist is recognition. In this concert, in typical Esa-Pekka Salonen style, we had a programme of 20th-century pieces that was anything but mainstream, with each piece directly crediting the work of another artist. In the first, Stravinsky paid his respects to Bach; in the second, Ravel embraced Rimsky-Korsakov and the poet Tristan Klingsor (yes, a pseudonym!); and in the third, John Adams wrapped Bruckner and Busoni in a cloak of Schiller.

Marianne Crebassa © Thomas Bartel
Marianne Crebassa
© Thomas Bartel

Following an acclaimed Stravinsky series last year, it was time for Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra to present a further snippet. Stravinsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Variations on Martin Luther’s Christmas Hymn Vom Himmel hoch had the Philharmonia Voices seated amongst the orchestra as Salonen fashioned a flowing rendition of the five variations following the opening chorale from the splendidly reverberant Philharmonia brass, eking out the tiniest details of Stravinsky’s inventive orchestration. The complex polyphonic textures were handled well and nicely articulated, ignited by Stravinsky’s unique exploration of Bach’s own canonic treatment, keeping it largely intact but adding his own canons and distributing parts of each phrase throughout the orchestra. The chorus blended comfortably with the orchestra, and there was a real sense of meaning and heightened musicality in this performance.

If this piece started things off well, it just got better. Ravel’s exotic song-cycle, Shéhérazade, was a setting of three Tristan Klingsor poems inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite, his treatment being imbued more with the suggestion of oriental imagery rather than any direct depiction of the Arabian Nights tales. Salonen and the Philharmonia immersed themselves fully in Ravel’s delicate and ravishing score, with vivid orchestral colours shimmering and pulsing throughout. But the icing was French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa’s exquisite performance. Her tone was pure and full-toned, with a wonderfully mellow lower register, effortlessly caressing the evocative narrative with a dream-like air. In Asie, the longest of the three songs, Crebassa captured the delectable range of delights of the Orient, rapturous in what she “would like to see”. La Flûte enchantée had Crebassa in pensive mood, embracing both the sadness and joy of the poem, and L’indifferent was infused with intense yearning. 

Bruckner was not on the programme, but his spirit was alive and kicking in John Adams’ Naïve and Sentimental Music. In this three-movement symphony, Adams combined Bruckner’s talent for patiently building up acoustic and emotional energy with an exploration of two different types of music, which Schiller in his 1795 essay defined as naïve (instinctive, intuitive) and sentimental (self-conscious, deliberate, aware of its historical context). The “naïve” melody in the first movement wandered freely over a gentle undercurrent, occasionally grounding itself before changing course and moving into a number of more violent and chaotic places. The Philharmonia’s playing was precise and jagged, with glistening Ravelian shimmers and a caustic edge. Salonen’s control over the accumulating ground swells added to the drama, with everyone thrashing around in wild fervour at the close.

The second movement (Mother of the Man), a gloss on Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque, had Salonen allowing the stillness of the simple melody to hover, creating a slowly moving tapestry of clouds drifting and changing shape over a static desert landscape, flaring up briefly before subsiding into a meditative but slightly unsettling close. Stratospheric strokes and wisps were superbly nurtured by the orchestra, Salonen skilfully folding in Adams’ full range of inventive colouristic effects. In the third movement (Chain to the Rhythm), melody was displaced by the “sentimental” structure of resurgent and evolving rhythms, with repeated patterns changing incrementally in true minimalist style. The orchestra was agitated, with harrumphing brass and winds pummelling their way alongside the scything strings and kaleidoscopic percussion as momentum gathered like a long ride in a fast machine, collapsing ultimately into a cataclysmic precipice. This was a highly impactful performance of a phenomenal work, the perfect present to continue Adams’ 70th birthday celebrations, and a fitting conclusion to a concert that completely assaulted the senses.