The first evening concert at this year's Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm brought together a veteran maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen, with a rising star, pianist Yuja Wang, in a concert of two works from the first half of the 20th century featuring piano and orchestra, Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 1 and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Yuja Wang, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio SO © Arne Hyckenberg
Yuja Wang, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio SO
© Arne Hyckenberg

In collaboration with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Wang and Salonen’s strategy was to emphasise, even exaggerate the key features of each piece. In the case of the Bartók, this served to make more plain than ever the concerto’s wilful vagueness. Here, Salonen and Wang seemed to be colluding in a large-scale deception, the music continually promising or even appearing to deliver some semblance of clarity, only to be proven superficial, directionally ambiguous, constantly changing tack. Having established such a disorienting context, even more so in the austere second movement which threatens to reduce the soloist to an automaton, this only made the work’s brusque tutti eruptions all the more fiery and exhilarating, albeit inscrutable. The strategy’s pièce de résistance, though, was in the final movement where Salonen turned the unexpected moments of lyricism – emotional oases in a dry place of feverish momentum – into the lifeblood of the work’s joyous concluding romp, somehow making Bartók sound like Gershwin, only with fewer tunes.

Perhaps due to the numerous, much-discussed facets of Messiaen’s compositional language, particularly its rhythmic elements, performances of Turangalîla-Symphonie tend to emphasise metric rigour and efficiency, with the slow sixth movement acting as a point of contrast, invariably milked for all it’s worth. Salonen turned this paradigm on its head, in the process taking huge risks to explore an utmost ‘romantic’ interpretation of the work. Every fortissimo accent became a massive blow to the head, tilt shifts in musical behaviour (even more disorienting than Bartók) became frenzied re-evaluations of attitude and intention. Tempo was turned to elastic, fluctuating wildly, with sudden increases in speed pushing both control and coordination to breaking point. The fact that the music’s integrity held together was due in no small part to pianist Yuja Wang, who quite apart from her role as soloist became a kind of barometer for the orchestra as a whole. There’s been much critical comment concerning the way Wang’s stunning performances seem “effortless”, but this isn’t even the slightest bit true. Rather, watching her play lays bare the immense, very real difficulty of the music, while at the same time demonstrating her staggering ability to overcome the intimidating challenges that it poses. To call such a performance “effortless” is to sell short the almost implausible clarity, accuracy and energy of her playing which is, literally, jaw-dropping. Messiaen is a new addition to her repertoire, and on the strength of this performance it would be a mouth-watering prospect to hear her tackle other works by the composer.

Valerie Hartmann-Claverie © Arne Hyckenberg
Valerie Hartmann-Claverie
© Arne Hyckenberg

Not all of Salonen’s risks paid off: the fifth and tenth movements, both rapid scherzi, slam into the buffers at their respective ends to find resolution in a vast final chord. Each time, Salonen paused to let the dust fall and the echoes fade before introducing the chord via a long, drawn-out crescendo. This particular experiment didn’t work at all, throwing away all the momentum and dramatic tension and making these apex moments sound detached and surprisingly vulgar. But even here the intentions were in the right place, seeking to turn up to eleven and thereby exacerbate Messiaen’s unique, seemingly incongruous mixture of intricate processes with immediate, lyrical melodic outbursts (a combination that Poulenc famously described as “written for the masses and the elite, the bidet and the holy water font”).

Salonen’s finest moment came in the slow sixth movement, where – unexpectedly – the tempo was brisk and consistent. Conductors are routinely seduced by the movement’s title, “the garden of love’s sleep”, slowing the tempo and reducing everything to an impressionistic mush; Salonen’s approach kept everything taut and mobile, and for once, the birds in Messiaen’s garden could properly be heard to sing.

Rooted in an immense expression of love, Turangalîla-Symphonie is designed to confound, inspire and overwhelm; Wang and Salonen ensured that, as never before, it did.