The haze of the surreal, somnambulistic nightscape of Witold Lutosławski’s Les espaces du sommeil cast its strange pall over the expanse of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s December 7 concert at Walt Disney Hall with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the podium. It was appropriate – this was the second concert celebrating the centenary of the Polish composer’s birth – but it also seemed to react in unexpected ways that could be jarring, though no less absorbing.

Gerald Finley © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Gerald Finley
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

First to Lutosławski’s song-cycle-cum-symphonic-poem which headed the program’s second half. Setting to music the roiling, dream-world words of the French Surrealist Robert Desnos – whose own life is tragically darkened by the shadow of his death in Thereseinstadt – Lutosławski’s music wove a tapestry of sonic imagery that augmented the poet’s words while transcending them. Les espaces du sommeil conjured a starry panorama shattered into broken, glittering shards; then jumbled and refitted and contorted into new, twisted figures. The composer had originally composed the work for the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but the performance by Gerald Finley very likely was the equal of the late German master of lieder. His voice, rich and sonorous, with an oaken timbre to his lower register, was impassioned; fully attuned to the music’s mystery and the many shades of darkness that creep underneath its surface.

Those shadowy figures slinked and slithered away from the borders of Lutosławski’s piece; the music preceding it foreshadowing its flickering, twilight ruminations.

In the hands of French pianist, David Fray, Robert Schumann’s evergreen Piano Concerto had the quality of an opium-filled fantasy that could have emerged from the mind of Berlioz or Baudelaire. The opening of the concerto – a dotted, descending motif, followed by surging arpeggios from the piano – were displayed through a gauzy lens; the impression more sensual than arresting. In a diary entry he inscribed in the 1930s, conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler likened Claude Debussy to a “French Schumann”. Fray turned around Furtwängler’s observation, instead fashioning Schumann into a German Debussy. It was wholly inappropriate and utterly bizarre – yet it somehow compelled attention. There was no doubt about the beauty of Fray’s touch; its velvet sound recalling Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at times.

Darkness – albeit broken through by brightly burning shafts of light – was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx; a brilliant tone poem that must be counted as one of the conductor’s most successful creations. The touch of Salonen the conductor hovered over the music with its sureness of orchestration and the boldness of the instrumental combinations. Coruscating colors clash and crash into each other, setting off chain reactions of tones that burst and quickly receded into the darkness. Another sonic eruption followed hard on its heels. Salonen the composer is not always as successful as the conductor. Nyx, however, was so impressive is a piece that I wished could have been encored.

One may think that Salonen, with his modernist proclivities, would be a poor fit for Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. But the power and fury he elicited from the composer’s Francesca da Rimini belied those preconceived notions. It was Tchaikovsky at white heat; passionate, intense, yet never sentimental. Back in 2002 or so I recall an electric Tchaikovsky Fourth from Salonen’s baton that was among the best Tchaikovsky I have ever heard in concert. This shared that exalted spot in my memory.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” goes the old adage. In Salonen’s case this look very much to be the case. His guest conducting concerts are usually among the highlights of the concert season. He has grown tremendously in the past few years since he has left, no doubt. Now I cannot help feeling just a little jealous of those lucky Londoners who get to enjoy him at the head of the Philharmonia Orchestra.