That Esa-Pekka Salonen is ending his tenure at the Philharmonia to go to San Francisco in 2020 is sad news for Londoners, and Sunday night’s concert only served to underline it, in a programme of 20th-century innovation and the conductor’s own music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

Jean Sibelius composed The Oceanides on an ocean liner, and conceived it as “a single great wave”. There are moments of striking timbral similarity to the middle movement of Debussy’s La Mer, composed ten years earlier. Salonen carefully controlled the sweeping momentum of the ten-minute tone poem, whose dark-hued brass climax broke with devastating force. It's a tone poem that is strikingly modern in its preference for texture over melody – none of the jaunty tunes of Karelia or the Violin Concerto here. The Philharmonia showed considerable discipline in dynamic control and careful balance in the ensemble.

Like The Oceanides, texture is Salonen’s starting point in his 2016 Cello Concerto. In his programme note for the piece, initially composed for Yo-Yo Ma but performed tonight by Truls Mørk, he had spent “a few months researching for new kinds of textures without a concrete plan [of] how to use them”. For Salonen ‘concerto’ does not imply a schema – although he does have three movements, with a showy finale and soulful, expository first movement – but signals the predominance of particular players in an ensemble. Mørk unfolded intense, hard-won lyrical lines over a fluctuating orchestral backdrop of shimmering strings and sparkling percussion. Timbres converge and diverge, catching lyrical and melodic shapes or tuning in to the cello’s register, with eerie bowed vibraphone imitating its harmonics.

The second movement opens with a Scriabin-like blazing intensity, thick and ecstatic, from high strings and winds and trumpets, giving way to a stranger and more inward series of sonic and chromatic explorations for the soloist. Mørk pulled descending ‘arches’ of breathless harmonics down the instrument, processed by live electronics (straight out of Stockhausen or IRCAM) and broadcast around the hall, creating a kind of ghostly soliloquy for cello. Pairing solo cello with alto flute deepened the uncanny effect: the latter’s spectral sonority offers a seductive mirror to the cello’s sound world.

Salonen’s final movement showcased his extraordinary stylistic range, where influence is audible yet never pastiche or expressive shortcuts. The previous movement took us into deep space in its stillness and strangeness; here he gave us nighttime in the jungle and the Latin-American dance hall, with frequent interjections from maracas and cabasa, and thudding plucked strings as foundation. But most striking were the sets of bongos and congas positioned to Salonen’s right, played by principal percussionist Emmanuel Curt, alternately confronting and evading Mørk’s virtuosic episodes. The jerky, dancelike rhythms evoked Shostakovich, whilst the orchestral interludes, bright and brash, had a Hollywood big band sound only a few dissonances shy of Korngold. The end takes the cello as high as I’ve ever seen one go, and concludes with a dazzling sonic flourish using Ella Wahlström’s sound designs again.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra got top billing. Salonen is evidently a keen student of its ethereal textures and Mahlerian night music, tracing a sparse, whispered opening. Salonen’s reading was episodic, contrasting its moments of lushness and emotional availability with the evasive, inward, exilic Bartók of the 1940s, cooler and more distant. The Philharmonia strings were searing and ravishing by turns: their interventions dominated the performance, and probably should have taken more of a backseat in the second movement’s Game of Pairs, confining witty and pungent woodwind playing. But the inscrutable core of the piece was the third movement Elegia and there Salonen and his colleagues burned darkly.

Salonen highlighted the tension in this music between Bartók’s Romantic, expressionistic intensity and its more alien soundscapes presaging another world entirely. This was particularly heightened in the strange lyricism of the fourth movement, whose parody of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony managed to elicit real laughter from the audience, where the lagging five-beat oboe theme was juxtaposed with lush string and harps straight from the pit of a great Tchaikovsky ballet scores.

Successful performances of the riotous finale depend less on playing every note and more on creating the sensation for the audience that the whole breakneck thing is just on the brink of falling to pieces. It is a piece that should always be played slightly too fast. Salonen affects a studied carelessness that is utterly thrilling to watch despite the final movement's furious difficulty. A bullish brass section blazed through the fanfare that explodes in the movement's climax; Antoine Siguré's timpani gave us taut and exacting offbeats, helping the whole thing to dance. The fugal interlude featured raucous and unruly woodwinds. Salonen's gift, perhaps, is knowing when to let his musicians have their fun.