This was a concert contrasting two opposing faces of man. From the heights of genius, of life-affirming, triumphant joy, to the depths of cruelty, of hopeless, nihilistic despair, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra presented two musical visions of humanity in this first concert in their new series, entitled ‘“The still point of the turning world”: Music that defines an era’.

What can I say about their performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with which the concert began? Not much, I fear: it left me speechless. It was a veritable spark, perfectly energised, with an exceptional balance between seriousness and humour, levity and aplomb. After Salonen unleashed that opening with an emphatic pounce, the first movement played itself. With a vibrantly fresh sound, the orchestra emphasised the natural, mathematical perfection of the way Beethoven creates everything, absolutely everything, out of those famous four notes. This is not just lively music: it is life-like, and the Philharmonia really expressed this musical mitosis in a performance that just grew and grew. EPS took a more active role in the second movement, toying playfully with the dynamics. The players were hyper-sensitive to his changes in mood, responding to his every quiver with the sensitivity of a seismograph. The third movement was again moulded and sculpted by the floppy-haired maestro, always with the effect of bringing the composer’s genius to the fore – highlighting, for example, the contrasting instrumentation of ‘that motif’ as it occurs in the horns (loud and invasive) and later in the winds (soft and exquisite). Towards the end of the movement, the orchestra reached a level of dynamic distance that defied belief, before a huge crescendo swept us into the triumph of the Finale. The wave of sound calmed a little as Beethoven takes us back a step, reminding us of what had come before, before crashing repeatedly towards the final, definitive cadence, bringing the house down in its wake.

The fact that I’d never before heard such applause at the end of a first half was not simply a testimony to the Philharmonia’s Fifth, although they’d earned each and every handclap. It was also a symptom of the audience’s apprehension of what was to come, because anyone who’d done any homework on Dallapiccola’s one-act opera Il prigioniero knew that they probably wouldn’t be in clapping mood at the end of the concert. For Il prigioniero (‘The Prisoner’) is a work of intense darkness, which grapples with the very deepest of human evils: physical, psychological and spiritual torture. What’s more, it does so in a musical language of true lyrical and emotional power – Dallapiccola’s own particular type of serialism. This profoundly moving, idiosyncratic musical style added extra horror to the terrible, hopeless tale, full of the bitterness and irony of misplaced hope and the utmost cruelty and hatefulness of corrupted humanity.

The opera, semi-staged for this performance, opens with a striking, heavily orchestrated, persistent three-note motif which recurs sporadically throughout. Immediately, the Prisoner’s mother, passionately sung by Paoletta Marrocu, addresses her son – who is incarcerated as a political prisoner, captive of the Grand Inquisitor – for the last time. Her impassioned goodbye is musically cut short by the fortissimo entrance of the chorus, whose terrifyingly loud and high-pitched recitation of a Latin prayer crushes the listener oppressively. The Prisoner, perfectly embodied both musically and physically in Lauri Vasar, is then visited by his gaoler, a subtle, apparently tender-hearted Peter Hoare, who inspires him with false hope that he will soon escape. In fact, this is the Grand Inquisitor himself, who will eventually lead the Prisoner to the stake when, at the moment he believes himself free, he walks straight into his captor’s arms. ‘Freedom?’ the Prisoner questions in a despairing whisper, as the opera’s final notes sound, and all hope is finally lost.

And as the music, the lights, and doubtless the Prisoner’s life, were snuffed out, I felt as though I could sit there forever in the nothingness Dallapiccola had created so effectively and ruthlessly, contemplating the horror of the preceding fifty minutes. Premature applause, however, wrenched me out of the depths of existential nihilism into which the opera had so incredibly sunk me. And once I had recovered from the annoyance of the interruption, I began to realise that here was proof of hope after all: that Dallapiccola’s overwhelming achievement, although depicting a tale of anti-humanity, was in fact an affirmation of humanity in the same way as was the Fifth. The representation of the one face of man – so dark, so brutal – was in fact, through the genius, the emotional power of its creation, a reflection of the other – so dazzling, so beautiful. And the audience, the conductor, the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists all realised it with me.