The Philharmonia’s season opener was the first of two concerts of Wagner, Schoenberg and Bruckner – an expressionist centrepiece for late Romantic operatic and symphonic music. Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, despite its mere ten-minute length, made an imposing opening. From the quietly ominous opening on timpani, via baleful laments from horns and Wagner tubas, the orchestra seemed shell-shocked at the passing of a great ideal. A keening oboe recalled Siegfried’s Wälsung heritage, which gave way to a processional celebration of a hero’s mighty promise, led by principal trumpet Alistair Mackie’s uplifting playing of the sword motif with an expert diminuendo and crescendo into the cymbal-capped climax. The Royal Festival Hall is not an opera house, but if we were never quite transported to the banks of the Rhine or faced with the end of the world, this was rather more than a curtain-raiser. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation) is a one-act monodrama in four scenes to a libretto by Marie Pappenheim. A monologue for solo soprano accompanied by a large orchestra is an unusual form for an opera, but it has had its descendants, such as Poulenc’s La Voix humaine. And, in an enterprising preface to the main event, two much more recent heirs of Erwartung were given in the Purcell Room just before this concert, in one of the Philharmonia’s free “Music of Today” series, presented by composer Unsuk Chin. Players from the Philharmonia, conducted by Pierre-André Valade, gave UK premières to two 20-minute dramatic works for female voice and small ensemble. Philippe Manoury’s Blackout (2004), sung by Hilary Summers, was clearly an homage to Schoenberg’s work, though Hans Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire, with Salome Kammer as the amazingly flexible“vocal artist”, seemed as much an offspring of Pierrot Lunaire.

But both showed what a fecund work Erwartung has been. The composer called it an “Angst-dream” and it is a depiction of hysteria as vivid as the cases of the newly fashionable Sigmund Freud. The drama occurs in a forest at night, where a woman searches for her lover. She comes across what she thinks is a body, but realises is a tree-trunk. She then finds a dead body, and sees it is her lover. She addresses him as if he were alive, angrily charging him with being unfaithful. Finally she asks herself what she is to do with her life, her lover now dead, as she wanders off into the night.

Its ceaseless flow of ideas, few if any of which are repeated, makes the score sound like a stream-of-consciousness improvisation, if one could use that term of a piece for which the most detailed preparation must have been required. It certainly keeps the players, and indeed the conductor, busy and alert. In 30 bars of the first scene alone there are nine metrical changes and 16 tempo changes. Esa-Pekka Salonen was the master of all this, and so was his orchestra. This is a partnership which has given us many modernist masterworks in themed series, and that corporate experience really showed. The intensity in this performance was unrelenting, aided by the highly committed vocal acting – singing is too weak a word for Erwartung - of soprano Angela Denoke, replacing the indisposed Camilla Nylund. From whispered intimacies to angry outbursts Denoke gave it everything, and seemed tireless even though she was singing throughout the work’s thirty-minute span.

Bruckner’s Sixth was once thought the Cinderella of his cycle, but is now coming more into favour. This performance surely helped its cause. Salonen is not among those who see Bruckner as, whatever the tempo markings, a writer mostly of slow music. “54 minutes” predicted the programme note, and the conductor gave the down beat at 20:40 and the last chord duly sounded at 21:34. The opening Majestoso had plenty of majesty, its opening triplet accompaniment kept sprightly and insistent even when the brass takes up the splendid main theme. When that theme bounds confidently through a far from predictable series of keys, Salonen maintained the impetus right through to the stirring resolution.

The sublime Adagio is the beating heart of the work, and the Philharmonia strings especially rose to the lyrical occasions the movement gives them. In the Scherzo there was a deft lightness not always associated with the composer, and the horns relished their frequent prominence. The finale, as often with Bruckner, is not the easiest movement to bring off. One commentary refers to its stop-go manner as “a drive across town in which every traffic light is red”. Salonen did not play this down, but simply jumped most of those red lights and kept driving. So not the safest ride, but in the end an exhilarating one.