Esa-Pekka Salonen’s latest series with the Philharmonia explores the Weimar Republic and its kaleidoscopic burst of artistic creativity. There is certainly no shortage of material to explore, from Hindemith’s neoclassical Neue Sachlichkeit to Kurt Weill’s satirical cabaret songs. While works by Berg and Hindemith proved an admirable technical showcase for Salonen and his orchestra, though second half of the programme ultimately missed the garish decadence of the works by Weill and Shostakovich.

Angela Denoke
© Johan Persson

Alban Berg arranged the Three fragments from Wozzeck from his opera of the same name and, despite its brevity, manages to largely capture the suffocating horror of the full work. The opening movement showed off the Philharmonia strings at their best, playing with hushed intensity throughout. As Marie, Angela Denoke's soft-grained soprano may lack the requisite heft to ride Berg’s dramatic orchestration, but retains a remarkable vocal clarity and freshness throughout her range with only a few effortful high notes in the lullaby. More importantly, Denoke’s extensive stage experience meant that she was absolutely immersed in the character, and conveyed a complex mix of longing, bitterness, and tragedy through her brief excerpts. The final movement, depicting Wozzeck’s death, was performed with admirable dramatic thrust, percussion and brass ever present as a reminder of the horrors of the past.

Hindemith’s Concerto for Orchestra is performed unjustly rarely, a four-movement showpiece based on the Baroque concerto grosso form and lasting only twelve minutes. Marked ohne Pathos, the opening movement alternates between the full orchestral ripieno and the concertino soloists, here a trio of oboe, bassoon and violin. Hindemith’s spiky neo-baroque stylings feature elaborate counterpoint, with a fiendishly intricate violin solo played with aplomb by leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. The second movement Scherzo proved an ideal showpiece for the absolute technical command and clarity of Salonen’s conducting, while the third movement march for woodwinds showed a dazzling range of colour. The final Passacaglia, featuring an uneasy ground bass, brought the first half of the concert to a rousing close.

While Berg and Hindemith pushed the boundaries of musical expressionism and abstraction, Kurt Weill integrated popular musical idioms into his satirical, often politically-charged works. The Threepenny Opera remains Weill’s most popular work today, its score heavily influenced by dance-hall and jazz music proving a brilliant fit for the sarcastic wit of Bertolt Brecht’s play. The orchestral suite excerpts most of the popular tunes from the score, but its lush orchestration occasionally overwhelms the gritty sleaziness of the piece. While the orchestra played with wonderful transparency, it missed the harsh cynicism and the decadence of the score. The muted brass and satiny strings seemed more fin-de-siècle Vienna than Weimar – Mack the Knife has never sounded less menacing.

Similar problems plagued the performance of Shostakovich’s The Golden Age, a satirical ballet set in the Weimar Republic. The convoluted plot, featuring a Soviet football team on tour in the capitalist West, has prevented the piece from establishing itself in the ballet repertoire, but Shostakovich’s colourful score has fared better in an orchestral setting. Here, Salonen excerpted the finale, in which the football team escapes prison with the help of their proletariat friends in a dazzling riot of sound. Shostakovich’s score fell foul of the Soviet authorities for his liberal incorporation of jazz and other popular dance forms, and the finale is a whirlwind journey through both Soviet and Western idioms including the ubiquitous offstage brass band. Once again, Salonen and his orchestra proved particularly adept at the darker, more oppressive passages, with a spectacular wall of sound from the seemingly tireless brass section in the final pages. The drama of these passages, however, was undercut by a lack of contrast with the lively, mischievous interludes. Nevertheless, the final flourishes proved a suitably audacious close to the concert, bringing an impressive but somewhat one-sided portrayal of the Weimar Republic to a close.