Esa-Pekka Salonen presided over an intelligently conceived programme that played on themes of light and dark and brought together two master orchestrators associated with the Russian patron and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. While Ravel and Stravinsky both produced music for his Ballets Russes, it was the imaginatively scored Firebird that formed a substantial part of Thursday night’s “City of Light” extravaganza.

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

Sharing the bill with Stravinsky’s 1910 “fairy tale ballet in two tableaux” were two early works of Ravel and his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Providing a gentle concert appetizer was the Pavane pour une infante défunte which displayed the Philharmonia’s polished string tone and the musicality of its principal horn player, Nigel Black. Written originally for piano alone in 1899 and orchestrated ten years later, this student work has never lost its charm and Salonen’s unsentimental direction prevented any risk of the Pavane sounding moribund. Its discreet colours neatly pointed up the richer scoring heard next in Ravel’s Shéhérazade.

This three-part oriental fantasy (an evocative tour of China, India and Persia) gave expressive opportunities for the imposing Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund who sustained our attention from the opening cries of “Asie” to the resigned final bars of “L’Indifférent”. Her slightly husky tones perfectly matched the languor and intensity implicit in Tristan Klingor’s emotionally-charged poems and her repeated petitions of “Je voudrais voir” (in “Asie”) were suitably fervent as was her resplendent high B flat at the movement’s climax. “La flûte enchantée” was memorable for its arabesques eloquently played by flautist Samuel Coles, and in “L’Indifférent” Nylund’s vocal poise and subtle shading were given impeccable orchestral support.

Programming Shéhérazade and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand side by side formed a startling juxtaposition in which exotic colouring made way for darker tones. The concerto is a late work belonging to 1930 and was the result of a commission by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in the first few weeks of World War One. Thursday’s soloist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, gave an authoritative account, and with his right hand resting on the piano stool, seemed to brush aside the concerto’s formidable demands. While his bravura first paragraph could have been less harsh-sounding he found a clearer and more expressive tone in the work’s nocturne-like episode. In the jazz permeated Allegro section, with its scintillating piano writing, Salonen was the stimulus behind a superb partnership between pianist and players and two captivating solos from bassoon and trombone. Here, there was more than a hint of Gershwin, who Ravel had met and much admired.

The electricity of the performance similarly pulsed through Stravinsky’s Firebird whose plumage was superbly illuminated by Salonen and the Philharmonia. In fact this Firebird brimmed with life, its magical narrative powered along by Salonen’s crisp direction. The saltando articulation of cellos and basses in the Firebird’s supplications was meticulously prepared and woodwind and strings were wonderfully fleet of foot in the “Dance of the Princesses”. Off-stage trumpets were used to dramatic effect for the arrival of dawn at Kastschei’s court and the “Infernal Dance”, although too brisk, was exhilarating; menace had been traded for a musical joyride. The awakening of the petrified knights was breathtaking and with placed trumpets high up and behind us for the final “Hymn of Thanksgiving”, the work closed with a glorious surround-sound clangour. For this “City of Light” initiative Salonen produced a Firebird that blazed for all its worth.

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