Esa-Pekka Salonen ends his decade-plus tenure as the Philharmonia Orchestra’s chief conductor this season, which is also its diamond anniversary. Given the current Coronavirus circumstances, the send-off and celebrations look much different than anyone would have anticipated a year ago. But an internationally live-streamed opening program of Britten and Ravel – which also included a very small socially distanced audience at the Royal Festival Hall — showed once again that this intrepid impresario can draw dynamic musicianship even under the most stressful of circumstances.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Southbank Centre/BBC | Mark Allan

Salonen had a worthy partner in Julia Bullock, who performed Britten’s early song cycle Les Illuminations. These settings of Rimbaud have become so associated with Peter Pears (and, in more recent times, the likes of Ian Bostridge) that it’s easy to forget they were composed originally for soprano Sophie Wyss. Bullock has the right vocal quality for these enigmatic pieces; though not particularly opulent, her instrument is darkly colored and expressive, her liberal use of vibrato shading the emotional ambiguity in Rimbaud’s poetry. Her French phrasing is impeccable, and it’s no surprise to learn she supplied her own translations for the programme notes. Salonen matched Bullock’s eloquence. The rigid harmonics of Britten’s score can sometimes seem alien to the beguiling texts, but Salonen elicited a performance from the Philharmonia’s string players that highlighted the underlying experimental impulses.

Julia Bullock and the Philharmonia
© Southbank Centre/BBC | Mark Allan

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte proved a poignant choice as the curtain raiser. The work memorializes a loss, something surely felt by the Philharmonia players on the eve of their maestro’s departure, and by the audience that has been robbed of regular concert outings these last long seven months. Laurence Davies performed the horn melody with piercing simplicity, and Heidi Krutzen supplied gossamer chords on the harp. The complete Mother Goose ballet score that closed the programme served as a model of narrative structure through music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia
© Southbank Centre/BBC | Mark Allan

The technological aspects of the live-stream were among the strongest I’ve seen to date, with fine focus on individual orchestra members that never turned intrusive. Watching Salonen conduct up close was a revelation; his beat is remarkably clear, his gestures subtle and understated, yet always achieving exactly what he seeks. Entrances and transitions are handled with near-military precision, but the listener never senses a robotic sterility in the playing. The connection between the corps and their leader is just that strong. Nothing but the highest standard all around.

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonia's video stream