London has fared well with the opening concerts of major orchestras this September. Simon Rattle’s contemporary-heavy concert with the London Symphony Orchestra launched the season with a strong statement of intent for his tenure, while Vladimir Jurowski, in typically adventurous fashion, kicked off the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s programme with a concert performance of Enescu’s Oedipe (followed a couple of days later by a programme that included the London première of Silvestrov’s Third Symphony). The big draw of the Philharmonia’s first concert of this season for me was not the prospect of hearing two of Sibelius’ symphonies conducted by the Philharmonia’s principal conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, nor the British première of Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, but the opportunity to hear again Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Aeriality.

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir © Kristinn Ingvarsson
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir
© Kristinn Ingvarsson

I first heard the piece in Gothenburg and immediately took to it, but on a second performance, I can honestly declare that it is a work I love. From the sinister first bar through to the glorious dissipation sound into silence at the end, Aeriality is spellbinding, the vast structure of the piece grasping the ear and demanding attention. There’s woodwinds, chuntering over eerie stirring in the strings, brass interjections that feel enfeebled, as if poisoned; and then, after a long period musical frigidity there is, all of a sudden, a burst of unexpected warmth that expands out from the orchestra, like a warm embrace after a struggle, until you realise that something isn’t quite right and the atmosphere shifts once more. Salonen’s great achievement in this performance was to highlight Thorvaldsdóttir’s orchestral mastery, bringing more individual definition, particularly in the percussion and Heidi Krutzen's precise harp-playing, and maintaining a grip on the work that allowed it to unfurl at just the right pace. Salonen really did make the case for the work entering the regular London repertoire.

The Bjarnason Violin Concerto left me slightly more conflicted. Performed by soloist Pekka Kuusisto, it’s sensationally demanding, a virtuosic work that pushes the violin to the limits in terms of the variety and nature of the sounds produced, yet at times not all of these made for engaging listening. The work started with pizzicato and whistling from Kuusisto, which subsequently spread into the orchestra; it’s an interesting opening that conjures up half-formed images of a fireside storytelling and wistful narrative. One of the most accomplished elements of the score is the contrast that’s created by the murkiness of the orchestra, offset by the glassy cleanliness of the piano. There’s no doubting the calibre of Kuusisto’s playing; he showed complete control of his instrument and dispatched the frenetic gusts of energy with casual ease, clearly relishing the scope Bjarnason has given to explore the range of the violin. An alarmingly mournful Swedish wedding march was an appealing encore, preceded by touching words by Kuusisto about the orchestra.

Slotting itself between the two modern works was Sibelius’ Symphony no. 6 in D minor; Salonen’s reading emphasised pallidity over emotion, clearly revealing the architecture of the symphony. Everything was carefully balanced, creamy string texture in the opening movement with forcefully played violas against solid brass, though a touch more precision in the woodwind was needed in places. Concluding the concert with Sibelius’ Symphony no. 7 in C major, Salonen’s interpretation was technically strong with appropriate tempi and structural coherency, but the one-movement symphony didn’t seem to sing in the way it should, the colour just a little too watery to stir the emotions despite some strong playing, particularly the trombone solo. An interesting and rewarding concert nonetheless, and how pleasing to see a warm reaction to the modern compositional talent on display.