Full marks to the Philharmonia Orchestra, under conductor Gustavo Gimeno, for an imaginatively coherent and thoughtful programme. Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major is guaranteed to draw in the punters – but Bartók’s lesser-known Viola Concerto? Add in some Ligeti and a solo piece for viola by the orchestra’s Principal Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, to preface the Bartók and the result was a welcome change from the more standard overture/ concerto fare.

Gustavo Gimeno © Marco Borggreve
Gustavo Gimeno
© Marco Borggreve

To be fair, Ligeti’s Concert Românesc is perhaps less challenging than his later work, but it was still deemed radical enough to be banned when it was composed in 1951. Although drawing on the approved of folksong heritage, he nevertheless had the audacity to introduce an F sharp in an F major triad in the finale section, and this was enough to incur the wrath of the censors. In just 12 minutes, its four sections contrast folksy dance music with lighter writing for solos and solo groups. Ligeti makes great use of a wild violin solo in the second section, and again in the final section, where leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay played with real swing. After solo and group passages passing around the orchestra, the solo violin is left alone with a high birdlike trill over just two horns, before the final emphatic chord. Gimeno elicited energy and spark from the Philharmonia players, as well as many commanding solos, making this a lively opener to the evening.

Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote his Pentatonic Étude for solo viola for Lawrence Power, and it is based on a short element from the first movement of Bartók’s Viola Concerto, which followed with only a slight pause in tonight’s concert. The challenge of Salonen’s Étude was evident from the huge score brought in on a large board before Power took to the stage. Power is an animated performer, and immediately captured attention as he launched into the opening arpeggio. The piece explores transitions between the so-called ‘black’ and ‘white’ pentatonic scales, and pushes the viola to considerable extremes of technique. The music is harsh and brittle – no warm lyrical tones here. Long passages of rapid string-crossing arpeggios are contrasted with glassy harmonics and harmonic shifts from white to black and back. Power communicated with great conviction, proving a strong advocate for this striking miniature.

Moving straight from the Salonen Étude into the first movement of Bartók’s Viola Concerto, Power maintained the level of intensity but also immediately broadened his focus, communicating constantly with Gimeno and the orchestral players. Bartók’s writing is often spiky and angular, but Power also added appropriate sweetness to his tone for the moments when Bartók creates a more lyrical line, particularly evident in the second movement, with the solo viola floating over simple string harmonies. The finale, with its lively, almost rustic dance rhythms had spirited energy, even if there was occasionally a slight sense of Power pushing the orchestra (or maybe Gimeno them holding back). But the race to finish line brought a fine performance and a fascinating first half of the concert to a close.

Mahler’s First Symphony contains so many elements that became central to his symphonic structure that it is often relegated to prototype status. Yet this is unfair, as the symphony has a clear identity, both in its links to his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, but also such striking ideas as drawing on the children’s song Bruder Martin (known to us as Frères Jacques) for the third movement – and giving this to a solo double bass to boot. Like most performances of mammoth symphonies, this had the odd slight lapse of attention leading to moments of less than perfect ensemble, but these were few are far between. When the yearning strings emerged from the elemental shriek at the start of the final movement, there wasn’t total agreement, and similarly when the trombones heralded the return of the full orchestral sound they weren’t entirely unanimous. However this was an otherwise tightly controlled performance, with moments of great delicacy as well as power.

Gimeno controlled the transition in the first movement from the ethereal opening into the lively Allegro, and managed the challenges of offstage trumpets, and the third movement’s clashing klezmer bands with ease. The Ländler rhythms in the second movement could have had a little more lift, and the central slightly drunken Trio was a tad straight, but there’s a fine line here, as this can also be overdone. Gimeno steered the finale’s trajectory from wild shriek, through the songful big tune, the chorale, to the final blaze of brassy glory that was as exhilarating as it should be. A powerful conclusion to a stimulating evening from Gimeno and the Philharmonia.