This unabashed evening of Austro-German Romanticism saw the Philharmonia at their scorching best in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, following an attractive account of Strauss’ Four Songs, Op. 27.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The symphony got off to an inauspicious start, when Diego Incertis Sanchez’s horn solo – one of the most nerve-wracking in the literature – was interrupted by an ill-tempered and very loud difference of opinion in the Gallery. With expletives ringing around the hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen had little choice but to restart the piece. Sanchez’s playing was wholly without blemish on each attempt, the cool, unearthly line revealing itself with unflustered purity and perhaps even a touch more delicacy second time around. From here, the symphony unfolded with thrillingly organic freshness. Salonen’s approach revolved around malleable, but generally quick, tempi, emphasising the lightness of the score. There was none of the interminable sludge of which the composer’s opponents accuse him, but instead a sense of Schubert in the delicacy of the birdcalls and free-spirited wind solos. There was no shortage of vigour, though, not least by the front desks of double basses, whose furious, full-bodied approach to the tuttis built up a rich and bold sound. Rather than following any old clichés of some imaginary ‘cathedral of sound’, Salonen’s Bruckner sparkled, bustled and brimmed with life.

There was more naïve pastoralism in the slow movement, a moonlit procession which exuded the same sense of reverence towards nature as the second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral. The warmth of the viola lines, punctuated by woodwind and horn comments, steadily built towards a boldly highlighted climax. The Scherzo bustled again, lively and bucolic in its excitable horn calls. Tempi remained pliable, but never overly micro-managed. At one point the music almost seemed to career off ahead of itself, losing a beat somewhere in the maelstrom, but the over-arching impression was of fresh, spring-like energy.

Lise Davidsen and the Philharmonia © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Lise Davidsen and the Philharmonia
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The finale blazed with all the requisite power, helped along by a supplementary trombonist, trumpeter and, unusually, two horn ‘bumpers’, rather than the usual one. This was Bruckner for the non-Brucknerian, always looking ahead to the unfolding structure of the piece and never bogged down in overblown brassy paragraphs of sound. The woodwind sang, the strings moved as one on their chairs and the long, slow ascent into the symphony’s last pages was a thrill to behold.

While Brahms’ St Anthony Variations proved an attractive, if slightly polite, concert opener, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen was a revelation in Richard Strauss’ Four Songs (no, not those four songs). Currently singing Elisabeth for the Bayreuth Tannhäuser, she quickly demonstrated her Wagnerian credentials in her apparently effortless projection into the cavernous hall. There was more than just a hint of Siegfried in the dark murmurings (and occasional violent outbursts) of Ruhe, meine Seele!, but there was also exquisite stillness in her fine control. Cäcilie was altogether more joyous, with a golden glow in the brass sound and heady excitement in the solo line. This continued with even more theatre into Heimliche Aufforderung, with its themes of intoxicating desire readily conveyed in the briskly rolling pulse. Morgen!, the most famous of the set, avoided any excess sentimentality in a relatively quick pace. With the orchestra held to little more than a whisper by Salonen’s batonless beat, though, the interplay between Davidsen’s delicately handled text and Concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s movingly beautiful solo was memorable. An entertaining encore of Elisabeth's “Dich, Teure Halle”, from Act 2 of Tannhäuser, closed the first half in ebullient spirits.

****1