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Seen and Heard Concert Review




Haydn, Mahler, Strauss: Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano) Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14.12. 2006 (JPr)



Perhaps I was just not in the mood or possibly it was the unseasonal balmy December weather outside that made everything inside the QEH on this night seem cold by comparison. The always reliable Philharmonia Orchestra were performing the second of three concerts of Haydn symphonies (written for Prince Paul Anton Esterházy) and Mahler song cycles under their Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor-designate, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Orchestra and the Finnish conductor are now finally forming a significant ‘union’ after a ‘courtship’ of about 23 years from the time of his now-legendary Mahler Third Symphony performance in 1983, when he replaced the indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas at short notice. In the programme Alistair Mackie, co-principal trumpet and chairman of the orchestra, welcomes his appointment and writes how Salonen ‘shares not only our respect for tradition but our passion for the new’. ‘The new’ is very important to orchestras these days because of the search for funding and (younger?) audiences to come to classical music for the first time; though my cynical side would like to see the lie-detector results of this statement, the other more open-minded part of my personality will look forward to encountering more of Salonen’s own compositions that will surely feature in future Philharmonia seasons. However a cause of concern should be the number of empty seats in the small QEH auditorium for this concert of ‘the old’.


During my last visit to the South Bank to hear this same orchestra perform under Ben Zander I was amazed by the depth and immediacy of the sound, not so on this occasion, as there was a disappointing uniformity and downright dullness to the acoustics that may also have affected my response to the music. The first half of the concert opened with the second of Haydn’s Esterházy symphonies, No. 7 in C, Le midi. His ‘Afternoon’ Symphony begins with a slow introduction leading to a triple-time Allegro that possibly suggests the glare of the midday sun and the deep shadows it produces. Most of the solo passages in this Allegro are given not to wind instruments but to two violins and cello. The second movement is an instrumental recitative, ingeniously drawn from the opera house, with the first violinist parodying a typically flighty prima donna, accompanied by two oboes and strings. The obvious follow-up is an aria (in G major), performed on solo violin with a pair of flutes joining the strings (we can imagine words that could go with this being something about little birds singing in the trees). A solo cello also puts in an appearance, and the movement continues as a duet, culminating in an elaborate double cadenza. The horns return significantly in the Minuet and the Trio gives the double-bass another taxing solo (splendidly played by Neil Tarlton). The Finale is an Allegro in 2/4 time with concertante writing spread generously round the entire orchestra.


Though I am, like Salonen apparently, no lover of period instruments, this impressed me as eighteenth century salon music played by a distinctly twenty-first century ensemble. Even Wendy Thompson’s detailed programme notes mention how ‘the solo violin (as the histrionic operatic heroine) emotes … ranging from despair to outbursts of fury’. The concert master, James Clark’s violin was too cultured for this; some rough edges from many would have given some vibrancy to this music.


Another let-down was Monica Groop’s singing of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Against what was for me a subdued musical accompaniment high in stoicism and low in emotional energy, Ms Groop was the archetypal ‘cool Finn’. Her face, though more significantly her eyes, gave nothing away and barely changed expression throughout the entire cycle of five Rückert texts dealing with the death of children. Not that vocal expression seemed any better, consonants were ignored and she sounded (and of course looked) the same whether she sang about it being ‘a beautiful day’ in the fourth song that is full of irony or that she should ‘never have let the children out’ in the final one. She is undoubtedly a very musical contralto with a wonderfully deep resonant voice but she found this last song (‘in diesem Wetter’) very taxing and resorted to some gabbling instead of singing, despite Salonen’s expansive tempo. Some splendid solo cello work (as earlier in the Haydn piece) at the end from David Cohen was a haunting reminder of the underlying angst in this music and hinted at what might have been, but it was all rather too late.


After the interval was Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, his study for 23 solo strings. He composed the earliest sketches for this work on the very day in October 1943 he heard that the Munich Hoftheater was destroyed by bombing. Strauss gave these sketches the inscription 'Mourning for Munich'. He completed the entire work in about four weeks during March and April 1945. The esteemed Michael Steinberg has written that outwardly it seems to be 'a lamentation for German aesthetic culture' but as melancholic as it is, the music has an extraordinarily strange and haunting beauty to it. There continues to be the unsolved mystery of how this is an elegy to a city, Munich, beloved of Strauss because it is deemed to be Bavaria's 'city of beauty and art' but somewhere, it should be remembered, that was also the spiritual capital of the Third Reich.

Salonen and the Philharmonic appeared to tilt the balance undoubtedly towards the beauty and away from the mournful in a performance that drifted more into Wagner's Siegfried Idyll territory than the despair of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony that is quoted and underscores the 'In Memoriam' conclusion. If you dig deep enough it is possibly too simplistic to sit back and just think of it all as Strauss's memory of a 'lost' Germany as he may have had other internal conflicts when he composed this.



Jim Pritchard



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