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Janacek, Lindberg and Stravinsky: Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 1.10.2009 (CR)

If ever a concert deserved a standing ovation, this one certainly did. Opening with Janacek’s imposing Sinfonietta, with its extended brass section positioned triumphantly in the choir stalls, the Festival Hall’s clear acoustic was something of a welcome change after spending much of the summer listening in the Royal Albert Hall. Salonen’s mastery was immediately apparent, creating a wonderful clarity of sound and excellent overall balance. The sudden tempo changes were expertly handled, and the character of each of the juxtaposing sections was well defined. The performance was well paced and magnificently controlled, with some wonderful solos from the oboe section and most notably the principal horn. The brass chorale sections were always played with faultless intonation and a wonderfully blended sound, and there was a sense of magnificent pride in the final climax of the piece.

The UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s magnificent Graffiti for Chorus and Orchestra was next in this impressive programme. Taking its text from inscriptions found in Pompeii, this South Bank centre co-commission is in Latin throughout, but the translation provided revealed a wide range of subject matter, from descriptions of battles to notices of theft, shopping lists and sexual boasts. The text itself is a wonderful insight into everyday life in Pompeii, and its musical setting is considered and effective. Lindberg’s compositional language is not overly complex in this work, but dissonance is used to create tension. The orchestral writing is imaginative and demonstrates Lindberg’s understanding of the orchestra as an instrument, while simple vocal lines are heard in contrast against sections of building layers. The ominous low orchestral introduction sets the scene well, with an impressively performed contra bassoon solo beginning a melodic gesture which gradually moves through the orchestra, rising in pitch in an eruption of sound. Parallel harmonies give a sense of age to the music, while the Latin text gives a sense of reverence. This was a remarkable work, and its 35 minute duration went by quickly. The performance was top-notch from all involved, including some excellent solos from members of the chorus.

The second half of the concert provided a rare opportunity to hear the complete music from Stravinsky’s first ballet score for Diaghilev, The Firebird. This was a performance which drew the audience into Stravinsky’s fairytale world, with Salonen giving space to Stravinsky’s chamber-music-like orchestrations. Once again, solo horn impressed, as did the woodwind section as a whole, who provided some wonderful solo lines as well as some excellent interplay between parts. A virtuoso xylophone solo also captured the attention, and an off-stage trumpet positioned in the auditorium was a well-conceived effect. Stravinsky’s masterpiece was given a dramatic and enchanting performance in the hands of Salonen and the Philharmonia, who appeared to be entirely unaffected by a momentary loss of light in the concert hall, impressively continuing the performance without pause. Salonen’s conducting style is relaxed and controlled. This repertoire seems to flow naturally form him, and his interpretation was unhurried, allowing the maximum of drama without forcing or over-playing. He seems to play the orchestra, disciplined but flexible, and always impressively musical. This was a first class performance from the opening moments to the brightly rejoicing end, which received a long and well deserved ovation from the highly appreciative audience. This was, without doubt, one of the best performances of the year.

Carla Rees

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