The adage that composers cannot conduct and vice versa fails to hold true for the ever versatile Esa-Pekka Salonen. In a way, the evening’s programme was as Salonen as musical narratives could get. Given Salonen’s initial serialist idioms in his compositions, the fact that Webern, one of the forefathers of the technique, venerated Mahler and Wagner and that Mahler likewise was in awe of Wagner coloured the programme as a celebration of a lineage of Western musical thought, condensed under the baton of the Finnish composer-conductor.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

Although Salonen may have been in his comfort zone, conducting a number of familiar works with his very own Philharmonia Orchestra, this was not to imply a lack of surprise in the first half of the programme, consisting of Webern’s aphoristic Five Pieces for Orchestra and the lamenting Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. It may be the connotation of death that links the two works (Webern claimed “all of my works from the Passacaglia on relate to the death of my mother”. Mahler’s symphony presents an apocalyptic vision of mortality, including a Purgatorio movement) or the fact that the young Webern had simply attempted to emulate Mahler’s orchestration. In playing the two works without pause, the effortless transition was telling of the outlook the two shared. A simple trick it may be, but it worked superbly.

The hallmark of a great conductor-orchestra partnership lies in the stylistic inertia they foster and maintain, meaning the string vibratos were kept controlled and the orchestral sections miraculously blended with each other, in Salonen’s characteristic effectiveness. It was also a keen demonstration that loudness or rapidity in themselves are not necessary indicators of vibrant playing – rarely did the orchestra reserve its piquant incisiveness throughout the brooding scores. If the Mahler sounded less Romantically sumptuous than spare, this kind of clarity was achieved by what felt as a marginal lightening of the bass. Even the dissonant climax had an airiness, as the emphasis was given to the sustained trumpet note. Was Salonen to suggest that it is what remains from a crashing defeat that matters rather than the defeat itself? Certainly Mahler, having discovered his wife Alma’s infidelities during the composition of this Adagio, could have found solace in such view.

Themes of infidelity, defeat, and death continued to the second half of the programme, this time at the hearth of Hunding’s house from the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre. It is not the first time that the single act is played in a concert hall, for it’s an act that is self-contained, be it the storyline or musical drama. Salonen, who was successful with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in previous occasions, proved his musicianship without fail, this time transforming the Philharmonia into a full blooded Romantic vehicle, replete with palpable bass and sensual abandon. Robert Dean Smith sang a textbook Siegmund, somewhat measured yet lyrically resonant, and Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde was abound in flexible allure. With Franz-Josef Selig’s ominously present Hunding, the hall was introduced with an expressive dimension of its own. An overarching success, then, highlighting the excitement of the Salonen-Philharmonia magic.