The Sunday Telegraph
A delicate farewell from a committed introvert
Esa-Pekka Salonen/ Philharmonia Orchestra Royal Festival Hall, London SE1
On Thursday night, at the Royal Festival Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen led his “swansong” concert as principal conductor of the Philharmonia. It was a muted, introverted affair, fascinating in many ways, but hardly celebratory. In that respect, it was a perfect reflection of the man himself, who has always seemed wrapped in solitude.
The first piece was an affectionate nod to one of Salonen’s great predecessors at the Philharmonia, Otto Klemperer. For a few minutes, we were immersed in the consoling beauty of Klemperer’s arrangement of the aria ‘Bist du bei mir’ (You are with me), by the little-known German Baroque que composer Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. zel. It was played with exquisite, uisite, hushed tenderness.
The he atmosphere of porcelain delicacy acy persisted through two Bach arrangements – but t stripped of that tender er mood, because use these were by modernist composers. posers. Anton Webern’s ern’s arrangement ngement of the ‘Ricercar Ricercar a 6’ from om The Musical ical Offering was played by the Philharmonia harmonia and
Salonen nen with delightful rhythmic hmic flexibility.
Luciano ano Berio’s arrangement of the monumental, unfinished fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue was similarly prismatic. At the end, it dispersed into a cloud of modernist harmony, as if Bach’s spirit had been wafted up to the stars.
So far, so sublime. Then came the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No 3 for solo violin, beautifully played by the orchestra’s leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, followed without a pause by Salonen’s own Fog, inspired by the same piece but named after the architect Frank O Gehry, who designed the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new concert hall. It seized our attention with a mood of solemnly glittering Orientalism – but after that promising opening, the piece meandered through reminiscences of Bach in ways that were aurally seductive yet lacking in direction.
Finally, Salonen and the orchestra were joined by the tiny but doughty pianist Mitsuko Uchida, a regular sparring partner in Salonen’s early career, for Beethoven’s great Piano Concerto No 3. She brought a rhythmic poise and grace to the piece; it was positively balletic, and a fine ending to Salonen’s farewell. But the most moving part of the even evening was right at the beginning, when the conductor spoke in praise of the orchestra he has led for t the past 13 years. That partnership has be been hugely enrichin enriching to London’s musi musical life, and it wa was good to learn that, though Salonen has relinquished the title, he’s not leaving the orchestra. He He’ll