It has become fashionable of late for Esa-Pekka Salonen to invite London audiences to explicitly late-Romantic programmes. After a successful concert of Webern, Mahler and Wagner in August at the BBC Proms, Salonen’s return to the Royal Festival Hall for the new Philharmonia season retained that very Austro-German spirit, this time via the traverse of Wagner, Schoenberg and Bruckner.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

The presence of Salonen meant that precision and tonal confidence were formidably on the table. Yet the long-standing partnership between conductor and orchestra also meant that there was an extra element of daring. In adopting fluid tempi in works that are often not associated with this conductor, complemented by a galvanised brass section, the organic physicality of the Philharmonia contours had very much what was needed in embracing the ecstatic natures of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod  from Tristan und Isolde and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

And if both works in the first half of the evening shared their intent in portraying transfigurations, to the extent that Wagner often referred to the Liebestod as ‘Verklarung’ (transfiguration), it was especially in the young Schoenberg’s score that Salonen excelled. It was a showcase of the Philharmonia’s colour and technical mastery, where sections of the string orchestra were delineated with frightful care. The rudeness of the double basses and the general sense of urgency was as compelling as Dehmel’s poem on which the work is based. Tristan and Isolde being the Wagner opera that the conductor has most frequented, Salonen subsequently gave an exciting rendition, with heavy doses of silence conjuring plenty of suspense.

“Bruckner was one of the main reasons why I decided to become a musician,” claimed Salonen in a recent interview. The track record of Salonen’s Bruckner is somewhat barren, however, with only the Fourth and Seventh symphonies having made occasional appearances. Yet that Salonen decided to initiate the Philharmonia season with two major Bruckner symphonies, and that he played the Seventh symphony in multiple occasions over the past week, is symbolic of the increasing weight of Bruckner in Salonen’s considerations.

There were plenty of ingredients that made Salonen’s Bruckner unique. Fierce, loud, yet microscopically exact, there was little doubt of meticulousness. The detail of relocating the tuba next to the Wagner tubas in the Adagio for enhanced brass unity, for example, was applaudable. Still, a protruding worry that Salonen’s theatricality, by means of excessive tempo changes and overpowering brass, may be interpreted as an insensitivity toward the underlying repose and breadth of a Bruckner symphony, was rarely absent throughout. In line with the briskness of the Allegro moderato, the dance-like third thematic group of the movement was played at the expense of atmosphere and mystery. Where the first theme of the Adagio was exquisite in its sensitivity and broad lyricism, there was more turbulence than release in the electrically conceived climax (replete with a cymbal and triangle, following the Nowak score). The third thematic group of the Finale, stretched and positively forced in its weightiness, felt detached from the benign context.

Salonen’s unsubtle eclecticism toward Bruckner is likely to draw grimaces from some, but heterogeneous opinions are hardly new in classical music, and in most art forms for that matter. If anything, such potency of surprise is the very reason a Salonen production is cause for an occasion.