Philharmonia Orchestra / Salonen, Royal Festival Hall
Tuesday 16 June 2009
Coupling Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces with Mahler’s 7th Symphony (as part of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s "Vienna - City of Dreams" festival) was a neat reversal of the "before" and "after". Even the moderately informed of the audience would surely have picked up on the amazing sense of evolution taking place before our very ears. This after all is the dream turned expressionist nightmare - the post-Mahlerian "big bang" - and not for nothing did Berg borrow the hammer of fate from Mahler’s 6th Symphony to nail the end of an era with his remorseless march to the abyss.
Salonen's hard-edged and brightly lit reading of the Berg turned the fantasmogorical scoring into something of a glare in the unforgiving immediacy of the Festival Hall. I think there is a great deal more to deal with here than complex texture and what I missed from Salonen's rather forensic reading was a wistful sense of the ephemeral - of evocative and much-loved Viennisms like the waltz fleetingly recalled in fading light.
There was a similar feeling of disengagement from the more personal aspects of Mahler's 7th Symphony. Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra faired well in the prehistoric processional of the first movement offsetting it vigorously with the vaulting horns of the second idea which sounds more and more like something John Williams might have written for Indiana Jones. But the central departure to arcadia was decidedly frigid, and you had to wonder if Salonen wasn't taking Mahler's self-confessed abstraction in this symphony a little too far. His altogether different kind of night music - a lot not a little in this instance - was coolly objective with the guitar and mandolin flecked serenade sounding unloved and unloving.
The grisly scherzo was more Salonen's bag, its grunts and thwacks scarily in your face. But I have to say that until we got to the riotous finale, timpani and trumpets flaring impressively, the performance didn’t really come off the page in any meaningful way. And that’s taking into account the curious and unique objectivity of the piece. But the finale, of course, drew cheers with its brash cross-cutting of Viennese dance modes hurtling us to a kind of bovine orgy of rattling cow bells and ecstatically overreached trumpets and horns. Mahler knew how to put on a good show alright - even one as flashy and skin deep as this.
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