The early history of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet was chequered. Part of the problem was that Prokofiev decided that a happy ending was needed, as “living people can dance, dying ones can’t”. However, he was persuaded to change his mind and, following further revisions, the ballet was a success. Prokofiev subsequently prepared three orchestral suites, and Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia performed a selection of eight movements in a lengthy programme opener, in fact forming the whole of the concert’s first half – a welcome change to be given such a substantial and engaging work as a starter.

Esa Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda
The opening “Montagues and Capulets” immediately grabbed attention, with razor sharp point to the brass entries. “The Child Juliet” was given delicate and skittish precision by the strings, and Salonen handled the nervy mood changes expertly. The sardonic “Minuet” followed, with an appropriately queasy trumpet solo, then “Masks” announced the arrival of the Montagues. Here, Prokofiev’s characterful wind and brass orchestration, combined with precise string articulation, is like a darker version of the procession in Peter and the Wolf, from the same period. The rich orchestral textures in the Balcony Scene contain considerable detail from the harps and divided strings, which Salonen brought out. For the “Morning Dance”, we’re inAlexander Nevsky territory (once again from the same period), with a gallop worthy of the great “Battle on the Ice”, and Salonen and the cellos and basses, had great fun. The placing of the lush “Romeo at the Fountain”, from early in the ballet, before the final portrayal of “The Death of Tybalt” might not make much dramatic sense, but it provided logical musical relief before the final onslaught. The rapid violin passagework was incredibly accurate and tight, and when the stabbing timpani, cellos and double basses took over, the violent conclusion was truly frightening, with Salonen delivering maximum venom. Way more than a curtain-raiser, this was a powerful performance, whetting the appetite for more Prokofiev to come.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major was completed in 1921, but was the culmination of work begun in sketches from as far back as ten years before. A work combining virtuosic, brittle writing with moments of high lyricism requires both technical command and sensitivity. Virtuosity was not a problem here, and Lang Lang’s energy was impressive, although excessive foot tapping and extreme gestures were highly distracting. His approach, however, was somewhat inconsistent in the opening movement, with some detail overemphasised by mannered articulation, yet at other times allowing detail to disappear behind the orchestra – not down to the orchestra playing too loudly, but more a sense of Lang Lang being rather detached and even at times distracted, with glances towards the audience. However, things briefly took flight in the sprightly interplay with the flutes and piccolo towards the end of the movement.

The gavotte second movement was taken at a steady pace, and there was some delicate playing from Lang Lang. Yet in the atmospheric fourth variation, one felt he might have taken a little more time and care over the lyricism in the writing. The finale contains some phenomenally difficult piano writing, and Lang Lang’s technical command could not be faulted, and the same could be said of the strings in some equally challenging music. However, once again in the lengthy lyrical central section, piano focus was lost, and there was a disconnect between Lang Lang and the orchestra. The return of the opening material proved more successful, and the furious coda brought the performance to a crowd-pleasing conclusion. Overall, a performance with moments of excitement marred by a lack of focus or a sense of partnership between pianist and orchestra.

However, disappointment was rapidly banished with a magnificent performance of Scriabin’s excessive, and somewhat egocentric, symphonic poem Le poème de l’extase. A sumptuous score, it captures in three sections the composer’s “soul in the orgy of love”, “the realisation of a fantastic dream”, and finally, “the glory of his own art”. The Debussy-esque opening, with tremolo strings, harps and woodwind is followed by an ebb and flow of swells, sudden bursts of energy, and moments of relative tranquillity. Salonen kept these rhapsodic and potentially directionless musings on track, and many orchestral players had moments to shine, not least the solo trumpet with the most insistent theme of the central section, depicting “the will to arise”. The music builds with thundering climaxes one after the other, with only brief interludes of respite. Salonen and the Philharmonia players maintained a wonderful level of delicacy in these momentary lulls, before really letting rip, joined by bells and organ for a triumphant climax. The glow of the final moments was relished by Salonen, the orchestra and the audience, who showed their most enthusiastic appreciation of the evening.