Esa-Pekka Salonen opened the Philharmonia season with a bang, giving us a Berlioz Requiem that was propulsive, expansive, and very, very loud. It’s a work better suited to larger spaces - cathedrals, the Albert Hall at a pinch – but the necessary forces were squeezed into the Festival Hall for the occasion. That made for a more intense experience, the batteries of brass and the hundreds of singers all the closer to the audience. The relative dryness of the acoustic significantly changed the effect too. But Salonen worked all of these to his advantage. His reading was fast and crisp, not lacking in poetry or passion, but studiously avoiding any tempo indulgences. His carefully shaped phrases seemed all the cleaner for the gaps that followed, space for decay in a cathedral setting, but silence here. And the Philharmonia, with its tight ensemble and ever-focussed tone, proved the ideal vehicle for his reading.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Sonja Werner
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Sonja Werner

From the very opening it was clear that Salonen had no plans to hang around. The opening phrases were fast, but elegantly phrased and displaying a dark tone from the lower end of the orchestra. This whole work is bass heavy, in both the orchestra and the choir, and the lower strings, woodwinds and singers all excelled. Fast tempos too in the Dies irae, almost too fast for the massed choirs, although the just about managed to keep up.

The four brass choirs were stationed with one each side of the choir, one directly in front of the organ bench, and one in the royal box. The box proved something of a resonating chamber, and the four players in there managed to dominate proceedings whenever they played. As it was they who began the Tuba mirum, their relative (and absolute) power was initially welcome, although a better balance would have benefited the music that followed. Fortunately, the chorus, and particularly the gentlemen, were able to hold their own, giving the power and volume required to balance the brass, while maintaining their tone and intonation.

Salonen had no intention of lowering the temperature in the movements that followed. Even the a cappella Quaerens me was given on a large scale, dynamics reduced but still epic. In the Hostias, the trombones finally played something at a lower volume, quiet pedal notes that underpin the choir. With these coming from opposite sides of the auditorium, the effect was magical, a quiet, warm sound enveloping the entire hall.

Tenor Sébastian Droy gave an appropriately emphatic reading of the tenor solo in the Sanctus. His voice is large with a wide vibrato, not exactly a reverential tone, but probably appropriate for Berlioz’ more operatic ambitions here.

In the Agnus Dei, a tension became apparent between the gentle summation of the text and the desire to continue with the fireworks, on the part of both composer and conductor. But after recalling a few of the more dramatic passages from earlier on, the music finally drew to a peaceful close. These last few minutes were elegant and deeply felt, and all the more serene for the context, an intimate conclusion to a performance on an otherwise epic scale.