A night drawn mostly from a gentler range of sounds, some more familiar, some stranger. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra London brought classics from Debussy and Ravel to the Philharmonie in Berlin, and paired them with two works by Lutosławski: the intricate and incredible Third Symphony, and Les espaces du sommeil, something between a monodrama and a song accompanied by orchestra, sung by the baritone Matthias Goerne.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra © Kai Bienert/ Berliner Festspiele
Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Kai Bienert/ Berliner Festspiele

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (quotations of which show up later in Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye) was offered up here as a dreamy amuse-bouche, gently opening the night in a mood of reverie and distant color. When Matthias Goerne sang the first line of Les espaces du sommeil, a repeated “Dans la nuit ...”, we were already primed for Robert Desnos’ fragile and tactile poetry. Goerne’s voice, when it is soft, nevertheless cannot hide its power, and these first exhalations from the singer were arresting for the way they growled their way out of silence and back again, a continuous breath stringing these phrases all together. When he sings a crescendo, he withholds his fullest sound a touch longer than one might expect, so that one marvels at how much strength his voice holds in reserve.

The poem itself is a love letter, ostensibly to the kind of love that only blossoms at night, though the last line (“Dans le jour aussi”) turns the fin-de-siècle obsession with darkness on its head, making the poet’s love a constant more sure than day or night. Lutosławski demonstrates in this piece a command of orchestration that would become even clearer in the Third Symphony, which ought to confirm that he has one of the best ears for instrumental color of any composer (the pairing with Ravel thus takes on a new significance). The orchestration in the symphony could be described as virtuosic, so many are the instrumental combinations and transformations that occur across its half-hour running time. Listen to the different ways he uses the harp, pairing it with dance partner after dance partner, hardly relegating it to flourishes or touches of angelic color at the back of the percussion stands. There is a passage where a sort of fughetta in the low pizzicato strings starts up, and as it rises in sound, Lutosławski begins to pad the notes with almost inaudible beds of bowed strings, giving the plucked strings a little more length, a little more warmth.

A conductor with Salonen’s seriousness and devotion can really make a night like this come alive; he is an eccentric who makes plain in his every gesture how deep and unfrivolous he takes the acts of playing and listening to music to be. I’m charmed by his evident impatience with the formalities of walking on- and off-stage, as I was when he hoisted Lutosławski’s battered score above his head on the fifth curtain call, eliciting throaty cheers.

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