In Antwerp, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra offered a symphonic feast, with insightful and thrilling readings of Beethoven’s Second and Mahler’s First. In effect, it was not unlike visiting old friends who suddenly appeared younger, more vibrant and congenial than you remembered them. Conductor and orchestra demonstrated once again that, in the right hands, familiar repertory can still prove compelling and even surprising. In other words, they possess the formula for bringing a great concert.

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

Part of the secret of success is the rich sonority that Salonen elicited from his orchestra. This was immediately apparent in the Beethoven, and would prove a continuous asset in the Mahler. The ever transparent canvas of the strings meshed with the woodwinds, brass and timpani into a convincing and fascinating blend. The placement was impeccable. Using wooden sticks for the timpani and valveless trumpets gave the sound extra spice. Another reason this Beethoven came so vividly alive was Salonen’s well-judged balance between tempi and accentuation.

Beethoven’s D major symphony is generally considered to be an optimistic work within the composer’s output, and while it undoubtedly is, this reading didn’t make a secret of its darker sides either. As with a great tea or a select wine, different tastes tickle your senses, some pleasant, a few less so, but they are part of the deal. The Larghetto, this long reverie, was subtly phrased and didn’t conceal its underlying sadness. Especially with the appearance of the A minor passage in the middle the mood changed with poignant woodwinds and first violins. An air of bittersweet nostalgia remained for the rest of the movement, even after the return of the initial themes. Salonen is sometimes characterised as a cool and analytical conductor. This may be true, but he surely wasn’t here. By contrast, the Scherzo and the Finale boasted all the energy and wit you could wish for. As in the first movement, the real brilliance was kept for the coda. Yet here, in the Finale, as if all power was encapsulated in a few bars, it really sounded like the gates towards the future were smashed wide open. Small wonder Beethoven’s contemporaries were baffled.

Even with the gates wide open, jumping from Beethoven to Mahler may still look like a big leap. But thinking about the similarities between these symphonies, including the most obvious ones like the shared key, it’s remarkable that both in their own time were challenging the symphonic model of the day, and both were damned for it.

The rendition of Mahler’s “Titan” was an unforgettable journey brought alive by quite phenomenal playing from all orchestral sections, but above all by a conductor who knows how to guide you to the heart of the music. The astonishing clarity and transparency, the vast array of colours and details that Salonen revealed throughout this traversal should have made Mahler a happy man. Nothing was blurry or smudged. His evident grasp of the symphony’s intricate architecture and musical ideas, his control of its emotional ebb and flow guaranteed a totally spellbinding performance, from the hushed opening to the jubilant wall of sound that brought the roof down in the finale.

The overall precision and obvious work on textural clarity didn’t exclude rougher passages, as in the third movement, where Mahler took inspiration from the funeral march of the hunter accompanied by rejoicing animals. Softer moments were phrased with delicacy and tenderness – again, there was no sign of any coolness in Salonen’s approach. In the boisterous, virile second movement, for example, the trio acted as a gentle, almost shy and feminine-like counterpart. That in the last movement the nostalgic recall near the end surpassed anything in emotional eloquence, was ample proof of Salonen’s sense of structure as much as of his commitment.

And finally, what joy to hear and see an orchestra playing as if possessed. Now producing the sweetest sound, then the rawest power that knocked you out of your seat, the flexibility of the Philharmonia seemed limitless. When the double basses and cellos kicked off the second movement’s Ländler it looked as if they would drill their instruments through the floor. Or, when all hell broke loose in the final movement, with the timpanists violently hammering, the horn players eventually standing up, a frisson ran through the hall. This was magnificent music-making. 

It’s one of the reasons why going to the concert-hall will always remain preferable to recordings. The audience in the Antwerp Elisabeth Center understood that well. They responded with a spontaneous standing ovation. Well-deserved, as indeed this was a night to remember.