“You’re not an emperor, you’re an onion!” muses Peer Gynt, looking back on his life. He peels back the layers of an onion, recounting his many different guises… a rogue who realises too late that it’s the love of a faithful woman that means the most to him. Movements from Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen’s play are familiar classics – “Morning”, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” – but we rarely get the opportunity to hear them in any context. This Philharmonia concert allowed us to get beneath Peer’s skin a little, even if there wasn’t time to dig too deeply.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

Where Marc Minkowski and the BBCSO had a whole evening to present a semi-staged version at the Barbican three years ago, here Esa-Pekka Salonen and director Juha Hemánus had just the second half of an all-Grieg concert at their disposal. 15 of the score’s 26 numbers were presented, with scenes performed by three actors. Given that Hemánus replaced Peer Perez Øian, the scheduled director, only three and a half weeks ago, he and Salonen stitched together a convincing condensed form of the drama for the musical excerpts to make sense. Actors (miked) and singers were costumed, the action taking place along the apron of the stage and the rear platform, with a few props: a bench, a tree stump, a pram. David Holmes' sensitive lighting designs helped create an admirable sense of theatre, even within the confines of the concert hall.

Gjermund Larsen, stamping out the beat, immediately helped establish location with a Halling on the Hardanger Fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument with ‘understrings’ which resonate the four bowed strings.

Sam Bond (Peer Gynt) and Lisa Ellis (Woman in Green) © Philharmonia | Marina Vidor
Sam Bond (Peer Gynt) and Lisa Ellis (Woman in Green)
© Philharmonia | Marina Vidor

Salonen gave space for the theme to “Solveig’s Song” to breathe in the orchestral introduction. His alertness to the drama was keenly felt in the menacing bass drum right from the start of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” – with a fierce accelerando – and in the gaudy percussion in the troll daughter’s dance. Samuel Coles’ flute glowed in the strings’ hazy light of “Morning” – a depiction of sunrise over the Sahara rather than a musical postcard of Norwegian fjords.

Sam Bond was our no-nonsense Peer, the love-em-and-leave-em opportunist. Anyone’s who has sat with a dying parent would have been moved at “Åse’s Death”, where a babbling Peer takes his mother on a flight of fancy to the pearly gates. Bond also moved with Peer's resignation when he realises just how worthless his life has been. Beth Tuckey was suitably despairing as Åse, while Lisa Ellis made much of her brief cameos as Ingrid and the Woman in Green. The musical women in his life were nicely contrasted; Anush Hovhannisyan’s dusky soprano suited Anitra’s brief solo and Marita Sølberg’s wholesome Solveig charmed in her famous song, as well as the final lullaby as she cradles Peer in her arms.

Marita Sølberg (Solveig) © Philharmonia | Marina Vidor
Marita Sølberg (Solveig)
© Philharmonia | Marina Vidor

Of Lang Lang’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor before the interval, the least said the better. No gentle peeling away of layers here, but a caricature of this evergreen concerto. Flamboyant gestures played to the gallery and a constant shift between the accelerator pedal and the brake resulted in a loud, overheated account, quite suffocating a work that needs to breathe cool, fresh mountain air.