Few concert programmes could expect to have such an expectedly perfect outcome from seemingly disparate components as tonight’s Philharmonia concert. Through the perilous idiosyncracies of Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra via the emotional tumult of Mahler's Sixth Symphony to its bleak conclusion at nearly 10pm, there was not a moment of emotional respite from any corner of the stage. This was the sort of concert which leaves the listener aurally and emotionally battered, requiring at least a week’s reflection to process its meaning.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

The concert formed the finale of Salonen’s “Inspirations” series collaborating with the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, which has seen concerti by Ligeti, Beethoven, Debussy and Boulez. For tonight’s Bartók, the Frenchman was joined by Tamara Stefanovich. The two sat opposite each other in the heart of the orchestra, with the two percussionists surrounded by their battery of gear between the pianos and the woodwinds. The effect was an uncommonly intimate interaction between the solo quartet, even at times when the percussion set up necessitated a twist such that a player’s back was almost towards the audience. All four players demonstrated impressive feats of virtuosity while playing with full sympathy to the ensemble, giving clarity even to rumbling lines in the lower registers of the piano and timpani. Stefanovich gave some beautifully shaped lines full of poise and deftness of touch, but it was Aimard’s whole-body playing which most caught the eye and ear.

The orchestra, for their part, played the thanklessly unobtrusive and fiendishly difficult accompaniment with similar sensibility, much aided no doubt by the simple clarity of Salonen’s beat. After the rock-steady tread of the slow movement, the finale fizzed along with seemingly boundless energy. For an amateur pianist and percussionist such as myself, to see the two disciplines merge so smoothly into one was a real thrill, with little to distinguish the upper registers of the piano from the timbre of the fine xylophone playing.

Mahler’s Sixth was completed at a time when his fortunes turned from blissful love with Alma to the death of his eldest daughter, estrangement from the Vienna Opera and diagnosis of the mitral stenosis heart murmur which so troubled him that he actually notated it for fourth horn in the opening bars of his Ninth Symphony. In Esa-Pekka Salonen’s hands tonight every pinnacle of triumph, tragedy and irony was perfectly judged, and with the slow movement held back until after the Scherzo, the natural arc of the symphony was realised with complete conviction.

Most Mahler symphonies are preceded by a long, thoughtful pause from the conductor, as if contemplating an ascent of some great mountain. Not so tonight, though: Salonen barely broke stride to acknowledge his applause before lunging towards the cellos and basses to his right to extract the most wonderfully visceral opening footsteps of the symphony. The initial run of the exposition was remarkably slow and deliberate, before assuming a more conventional pulse after its repeat. The progress of the development was utterly compelling; there was some ferocious, off-the-string articulation, and by contrast the delicate dialogue between leader and principal horn, matching and responding to one another’s playing amid the cowbells, was a joy to behold.

After delighting in the exaggerated child’s play and lugubrious irony of the Scherzo, Salonen opted to direct the Andante without use of a baton. The tortured eloquence that ensued was profoundly moving, even rivalling slow movements of the Third or Fifth. At its climax, the entire string section moved as one with the shape of each line, and Nigel Black’s horn solos were memorably haunting.

The finale found all the exquisite tension required to give context to the softly hummed chorales and shattering climaxes which punctuate its narrative. The famous hammer blows were just resonant enough to shake the floor, and the last great explosion saw an entire quartet of crash cymbals raised aloft. This was raw, thrilling music, bordering on wild, before the sound slipped away into the darkest of nights in the last pages to close a superb programme.