Monday night saw the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, in the first of three Proms celebrating the centenary of Henri Dutilleux’s birth, though bizarrely it was not the Frenchman’s work that was centre stage. The main attraction was Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, which followed an imaginative first-half pairing of Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time with Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

The other big draw for the evening, Simon Russell Beale, had had to withdraw from narrating Schoenberg’s highly emotional account of surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, and baritone David Wilson-Johnson filled his shoes at short notice. Extremely impressive he was too, clearly enunciating in both English and German the horrors endured by this survivor, and his confusion over his escape to the sewers. Particularly chilling was the lightness with which he delivered the line “Whereupon the sergeant ordered to do away with us”; the almost unbearably heavy silence which followed only served to highlight the casual brutality of the Nazis. The orchestra matched his expressiveness, in particular the trumpets on fine form for the reveille call waking the prisoners, and the insistent xylophone sounding like bones rattling as they were lined up for execution. The climax of the work comes in the form of a defiant expression of faith in the face of certain death with a recitation of the ancient Hebrew prayer Sh’ma Yisroel, which the men of Philharmonia Voices delivered as a final challenge to the terrors unfolding from the orchestra beneath them. The performance ended as if it could go on no longer, burning itself out in horror.

Where Schoenberg is insistent, Dutilleux is more questioning in his approach to the Second World War. His connection is also more loose, only emerging in the third movement, Mémoire des ombres. Dedicated to Anne Frank, a few children’s voices allude to her tragedy, singing “Pourquoi nous? Pour l’étoile?” (Why us? Why the star?). Joshua Albuquerque, Matthew Gillam and Lucas Pinto were winsome in their delivery, their sweet innocence again in sharp contrast to the horror they were articulating. Salonen’s handling of them and the orchestra together was well-judged though elsewhere in the performance there were odd mis-firing moments; the brass struggled at times during the opening movement, the woodwinds in second movement, and the final movement felt a bit scratty in places. Perhaps I am being harsh in expecting more finesse from Salonen, who conducted the première in 2005, as there was also much to savour. The percussion were wonderfully relentless in producing an ever-ticking clock in Les heures, and never rigid, while the strings and woodwinds created a malevolence in Ariel maléfique that was heightened by its lightness. The final movement brought together all these elements in jazzy style; a fine rendition of a challenging piece, but with some of its challenges too clearly on display.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 also proved something of a curate’s egg in the hands of Salonen and the Philharmonia. It started ethereally, and the first movement was lovingly handled, but overly stately in places. This stateliness extended into the Ländler of the second movement, but still had a pleasing punch to it, and the dynamic contrasts were beautifully handled. The trio was perhaps a little on the leisurely side, but the return of the Ländler brought more fire to end. A light touch from Salonen worked well at the start of the funeral march, the double bass solo played without vibrato as well as muted, allowing space for the movement to open out expressively. The klezmer-influenced passages were fantastically sardonic, and the final return of the funeral march was given added menace by the lower woodwinds. Overall, however, transitions were messy, and the final movement couldn’t maintain the focus of its explosive, anguished start throughout. There were moments to savour; there was huge warmth before plunging back into funereal depths recalling the third movement, and triumphant brass, but the intensity dipped after the re-statement of the very opening, only to return as the fiery finish brought us triumphantly home. It was almost enough to make you forget the varied nature of the evening – almost, but not quite.