There can’t have been many philosophers as directly linked to music as Friedrich Nietzsche. Besides providing direct inspiration to Strauss by writing the bewildering philosophical novel Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (Thus Spake Zarathustra: a Book for All and None) in which the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra, founder of the Zoroastrianism religion, leaves his cave at a mountain’s peak after a decade to spread the word about such things as the Übermensch in such places as the wonderfully named town, Motley Cow, Nietzsche spent several years at the heart of the Wagner circle, first at Lucerne and then at Bayreuth, before the passion steadily turned into dislike.

Nigel Back, Richard Watkins, Katy Woolley and Michael Thompson © Camilla Greenwell
Nigel Back, Richard Watkins, Katy Woolley and Michael Thompson
© Camilla Greenwell

Wagner was a passionate admirer of Beethoven and first up on the Philharmonia’s programme for this concert was Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the soloist. Known as "The Emperor", although not given that title by the composer who by the point of the première in 1811 had lost his hearing almost entirely and the affection for Napoleon that he had felt in his youth, the work was a success at its first performance in Leipzig, but wasn’t particularly well received in Vienna, where it was first given at a concert organised by the Society of Noble Ladies, unhappily juxtaposed alongside a number of works inspired by the Bible. This performance was one of those fortunate occasions when soloist and conductor seem entirely in unison on the approach to take. It was a pleasant change, after a number of performances where introspection and meditation seemed to be the dominant element in soloists’ playing to hear Aimard’s energetic and crystal-clear attack on the keyboard.

From the very beginning with his clean, defined opening, Aimard offered a performance that combined intensity with definition. He gave the Allegro with a force that was met and equally reciprocated by the orchestra while revealing contrasts in mood by the broad character of his playing; mellow, pearly notes at one moment balanced against stormy-black tension in the next. In the Adagio Salonen drew an expressive account from the Philharmonia sans baton, tender phrasing and spacious playing in the lower strings, marginally hindered by a number of grunts from Aimard that carried just a little too loudly for the slow movement. Salonen took a more gentle tempo than is common for the third movement, allowing greater opportunity for texture and precision which Aimard offered in spades.

That concerto might have struggled with its audience at its Vienna première; Tansy Davies’ new Concerto for Four Horns, entitled Forest, suffered no such problems at its first performance in London. Davies is increasingly making a name for herself with performances of her work at the Proms and ENO within the last couple of years. Forest is a work that warrants further listening; Davies creates an inventive, unstable soundscape, the musical ground constantly shifting and slipping, there’s a harsh, unforgiving texture to it, undermined by beguilingly melodious fragments and underpinned by the four horns which offer a place at which to anchor. For me, the horn writing is good (and was well served by Katy Woolley, Nigel Back, Richard Watkins and Michael Thompson), but is outshone by some of her writing for the strings – astonishingly interesting and versatile – while there’s a feast of percussion to delight and confound the ear.

Richard Strauss’ adaptation of Also sprach Zarathustra reduces the novel’s eighty divisions down to just eight, an arrangement of spirit rather than letter. Salonen drew a majestic performance from the Philharmonia; Antoine Siguré was dramatic and nuanced on the timpani, while in the famous Dance Song, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s solo contribution was typically elegant, if not quite the picture of unrestrained joy. Salonen’s pacing was always interesting, occasionally a little too quick, but with an eye for the piece’s numerous moments of drama.