This concert marked the resumption of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia’s “Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals” series, a superb focus on the composer that has seen staples of the repertoire balanced with works that are rarely performed, linked by Stravinsky’s interest in musical narrative and dramatic impetus. It’s the kind of series that one longs for – intellectual without being incomprehensible and daring without being foolhardy, sustained within a clear developing frame. Salonen programmed three of Stravinsky’s less performed works for this installment, dubbed “Myths”. The last few decades of Classical scholarship has seen a new interest in the reception in music of the Classical world but, with the exception of Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex, there seems to have been little acknowledgement of Stravinsky’s passionate engagement with Greek myth and literature.

Pauline Cheviller © Camilla Greenwell
Pauline Cheviller
© Camilla Greenwell

Stravinsky wrote the short ballet Orpheus in 1947, one of his earliest post-war works, from the safety of his adopted American homeland, but there are obvious elements of catharsis in its composition; a distinct melancholia and a sense of loss. The music is hauntingly, cleverly beautiful. Orpheus’ lyre is a harp, mournfully plucked as the ballet begins, expressing the hero’s heartbreak at the death of Eurydice. Most of the work is similarly introspective, except for a brief orchestral melee representing the violent rending of Orpheus by the Bacchantes in the second of the two Pas d’actions, a jagged scrum of aimlessly violent music. Salonen drew thick textures from the Philharmonia, wringing out plenty of sorrow in the opening bars. The first Air de danse saw a frothiness in the woodwind, well-balanced by forcefulness in the cellos. The woodwind in general took on the changing contours of the piece admirably: spiky, malicious in the Pas de furies, ethereal in Orpheus’ Air de danse. What struck me most, though, was on Eurydice’s second death, the total draining of colour that Salonen achieved, giving the orchestra a remarkable touch of shellshock. Heidi Krutzen’s performance on the harp was technically excellent and emotionally touching.

Apollon musagète left me slightly less moved, perhaps because of the three works, it’s the least immediately and shamelessly emotional. It’s a deeply formal work, the strands courteous in their interactions. This ballet was composed twenty years prior to Orpheus and covers the birth of Apollo, god of music, and his encounter with the three Muses within a semi-poetic framework. Most enjoyable in this performance was the virtuosic playing of concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, the warmth of which broke through what seemed at times a performance that was just a little too coolly elegant, at least until the Coda and Apotheosis when Salonen allowed a little swagger into the orchestra, and sudden colourful surges of emotion.

Andrew Staples © Camilla Greenwell
Andrew Staples
© Camilla Greenwell

Perséphone is a sadly underperformed work of 1934/5, which under the working genre of mélodrame combines the operatic with the choral, the poetic with the balletic. Freed from traditional attempts to stage the piece, it came together under Salonen’s baton well. It tells of the daughter of Demeter who, moved by the plight of the shades in Hades, takes flowers to the underworld and becomes Queen (in contrast to the more traditional involuntary abduction scenario). The piece is a framework for a highly ritualistic meditation on the seasons and the music is imbued with a quasi-religious air that was well-served by the performers at this concert. Andrew Staples’ pale tenor shifted constantly in character, capturing the slight shifts in the writing’s dynamic. Phrasing was smooth and notes were caressed; he was struck the ideal balance between dramatic and hallowed. The actress Pauline Cheviller made a moving Persephone, offering a lot of classy acting with very small gestures and movements, though her amplification was a touch too strong, giving her voice an unnatural booming quality at times. The Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys' Choir brought a natural simplicity to the piece which let the narrative ritual elements stand out. Clarity of diction from all performers was universally excellent, where fogginess would have destroyed the work’s impact. The Philharmonia veered on occasions in the middle of the piece into a mood which slightly too religiously austere, but generally managed to find a path between drama, poetry and ceremony. Hopefully we might see this beautifully odd piece in London more often now that Salonen has shown how to do it well.