If it was a little strange that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 30th anniversary with the Philharmonia was celebrated with a traditional, unadventurous Sunday matinée programme which did little to challenge its audience, at least the quality of the performance made it clear why this conductor is so well loved and respected. His legacy to the Philharmonia will surely not lie in renditions of the Schumann Piano Concerto and Symphonie fantastique, so much as in the more creative programming he has embarked on with them, including the excellent Lutosławski series earlier this year. But maybe most of all, what makes Salonen so exceptional on the podium is simply the quality of his conducting. The thrills he found in this matinée concert’s stirring Berlioz performance were ample proof of his sheer vitality, and his talent in transmitting his energy to his players.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

He was joined in the first half by an artist who cuts a similarly dapper, almost rockstar-esque profile on stage: Piotr Anderszewski, who was soloist in the Schumann. He transmits a sort of effortless charisma, wearing strikingly chic concert blacks and forgoing a piano stool for a standard orchestral chair – though he is clearly quite an introverted, pensive performer whose focus is tightly on the music, he brings the audience in with him; you can’t help but want to know more. And it’s like he discovers each phrase he plays anew; there’s a spontaneity, a freshness to his playing quite unusual in so well travelled an artist. His Schumann is the thing of wonder it should be to everyone, full of marvellous melodic twists and deft harmonic turns. He plays it with quite a loose rubato at times which occasionally drifts fractionally away from the orchestra, very much in accompaniment mode for this performance – but it’s worth it for the insights he brings to the solo part, especially in the slow movement, graceful, soft and still. Salonen seems as surprised and delighted by Anderszewski as the audience does; it’s the dreamiest of half-hours.

Memories of the opening piece, by this point, have already faded: Beethoven’s Namensfeier (“Name-Day”) overture was well dispatched by the Philharmonia, with Salonen gamely conjuring up some exciting phrasing and sharp dynamic contrasts. The Philharmonia’s strings have a sound that works especially well for Beethoven, and they were a delight to hear as ever. But the piece just lacks distinctiveness: it’s conventional, and chimes with so few of the reasons we value Beethoven’s music today. Typical of Salonen, though, to throw at least something of a curveball onto the programme.

Where the conductor really shone, unsurprisingly, was in the second half, devoted to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a piece which can hardly fail to make an impression under any circumstances. Here, Salonen played up its modernistic credentials at times – the chugging accompaniment to the idée fixe on its first appearance was almost Rite of Spring-style in its aggression, and some of the colours found in the second movement, “Un bal”, brought the orchestra’s superb Lutosławski playing from last season back to mind. And both of the final two movements, where Berlioz vividly depicts a dangerous drug trip, were clearly informed by Salonen’s ease with the late-Romantic symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, and the way their movements climax. It all added up to a deeply stirring performance, demented at times, in fact, and a great opportunity for conductor and orchestra alike to indulge.

What a team they are. In celebration of his anniversary – it was actually 30 years to the day since his debut with the orchestra, as an unknown entity drafted in at the last minute for Mahler 3 – the orchestra had prepared a short film as a tribute. It touchingly recounted the story of the success of his debut (we heard possibly the world’s shortest ever interview – was he satisfied with the performance? “Yes”), and featured many words of praise from members of the Philharmonia. He’s not scheduled to conduct in London again for a while now – not till June 2014, in fact, incredibly enough – but his return, as ever, is keenly anticipated.