In countries like the United Kingdom where concerts are only just starting to reopen to audiences, every concert – albeit with reduced numbers both of musicians and concertgoers – feels like a major event and a cause for celebration. Last night’s Royal Festival Hall concert, however, was doubly so, as the Philharmonia Orchestra marked the last of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure as their Chief Conductor. Although this isn’t so much a farewell as a re-grading – Salonen becomes Conductor Laureate and fully intends to continue performing with the Philharmonia – the sense of occasion was considerable, with filmed and spoken tributes to the Finn, and the man himself paying an eloquent tribute in return, giving an excellent introduction to the programme and regaling us with the tale of his first concert, in 1983, when he was hauled out of bed in a hung-over state to be told that he would was wanted at short notice for a Mahler 3 (“is that the long one,” he remembers asking), which he had never previously conducted.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia
© Luca Migliore

If the pre-concert formalities hadn’t constituted enough proof of the orchestra’s affection for this conductor, their playing left no room for doubt, from the very first piece of a programme that was intelligently constructed to mark the occasion. We started with five pieces by – or based on – Bach, demonstrating Salonen’s contention that every generation of composers adopts Bach’s music and makes it their own – adapting it, transforming it, mangling it. The first was a beautiful string orchestration of the aria Bist du bei mir by Otto Klemperer, the Philharmonia’s Chief Conductor from the 1950s to the 1970s, which set the tone for the evening: conducting that was precise and easy to follow leading to playing that was sprightly and purposeful but with great lightness of touch and a lovely sense of cantabile.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia
© Luca Migliore

Next was Webern’s deconstruction of the “Ricercar a 6” from Bach’s Musical Offering to Frederick the Great: this is Webern splitting up and reassembling the components of Bach’s work in the way that a Michelin-starred chef would deconstruct and reassemble a classic dish, using modern techniques (in this case, instruments) to add intensity and flavour (in this case, timbre) to each component. Luciano Berio’s treatment of the last, unfinished, Contrapunctus in The Art of Fugue is a completely different animal, Berio playing it fairly straight until Bach’s music starts to thin out, being gradually taken over by a veritable “music of the spheres”, a cosmic morass: Berio morphing Bach into 2001, A Space Odyssey. Finally we were treated to the Prelude to the Violin Partita no. 3, played from the royal box by the Philharmonia’s leader, Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (“the royals aren’t here tonight”, quipped Salonen), leading into Salonen’s fantasy on that theme, entitled FOG (the initials of Frank Gehry, for whose 90th birthday the piece was written), in a new expanded orchestration heard for the first time in this concert. Unlike the Webern and Berio, this is the composer having fun with Bach: he starts with a crystalline opening which might be the snow of a Nordic winter, or indeed the shimmering sun from the metal shell of Walt Disney Hall, of which Gehry was the architect, and then takes the theme in all manner of whimsical directions.

It would be hard to think of a better way to show the plethora of directions in which Bach’s music can be taken, or to demonstrate how Salonen can exert precise, detailed control over this orchestra without that being at the expense of expression and joy.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia
© Luca Migliore

After a pause for reconfiguration of the stage to introduce a Steinway grand, we were joined by Dame Mitsuko Uchida for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3. Were there nerves at this first performance for many months of a concerto in front of a live audience? There was the odd prominent fluffed or mistimed note, both from Uchida and from several of the Philharmonia’s players... but any frayed nerves were soon settled and we were treated to another reconciliation of opposites: how to be precise, transparent and strictly within the classical form, while remaining anything but robotic, continually playing with accenting and pulling slightly at the length of notes in a way that added vivacity and joy without ever feeling overblown. For perfection, I might have asked for a slightly faster pace for the start of the closing Rondo, which felt just a little held back. But Uchida’s cadenza and the interplay between soloist and orchestra showed such a sense of balance and elegance that by then, I could have forgiven anything. So näkemiin, Esa-Pekka. We’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.


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