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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Seen and Heard Concert Review

Wagner, Strauss, Beethoven: Susan Bullock, soprano, Emmanuel Ax, piano, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Royal Festival Hall, 23 April 2005 (TJH)

Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
R. Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, “Emperor”

It is generally inadvisable to perform the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde with a soprano soloist in concert – it puts huge strain on the singer, who must cut through a full Wagnerian orchestra positioned right behind her rather than in the pit below. This was Susan Bullock’s predicament in her appearance with the Philharmonia on Saturday night: a last minute replacement for an indisposed Angela Denoke, she simply didn’t have the vocal muscle to match Esa-Pekka Salonen’s powerful accompaniment. A shame, because what could be heard of her singing was pretty good: she sang with fervour and textual understanding, born of her experience singing Isolde for Opera North and ENO. Salonen is presently immersed in this music himself, involved as he is with the Châtelet Theatre production currently wowing Paris audiences; he gave the RFH audience a tantalising taster of what was on offer across the Channel, with an intense and beautifully proportioned account of the Prelude – greatly enhanced by antiphonally divided violins – and a rapturous reading of the Liebestod.

His clean, unaffected way with such music was further evinced by the performance of Also sprach Zarathustra which followed. There was a remarkable clarity to the orchestral playing here – every strand of the polyphonically complex “From the Grave” section was distinctly audible, for instance – but this did nothing to diminish the grandiosity of Strauss’ most infamous tone poem. Indeed, the huge climax at the end of the central fugal episode (“Of Science”) provoked a smattering of applause, artfully dismissed with a raised hand from Salonen. Despite this interruption, it was a well proportioned account, flowing naturally from one segment to the next, and with a real valedictory feeling in the final waltz, played without a hint of schmaltz by the Philharmonia.

Emmanuel Ax bounded on stage to join them in the second half for a delightfully enthusiastic account of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Ax’s affection for this music was evident both in his playing – joyous from first note to last – and in the way he bobbed his head up and down appreciatively during the purely orchestral moments. When he did play, it was with the beautiful tone and interpretive poetry for which he is known, bringing crystalline trills and melting left-hand arpeggios to the unassailably lovely slow movement and an unforced vitality to the headlong, dancing finale. If accuracy was occasionally a little questionable, sincerity was not: it was heart-warming to see such a seasoned pro enjoying himself so much. Salonen proved a worthy partner, providing relatively fast tempi throughout: the long first movement never dragged, while the slow movement was closer to Andante than Adagio. But he always remained true to the spirit of the music and to the infectiously high spirits of his soloist, ensuring a supremely entertaining finale to a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)