Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

So Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia are finally engaged. The relationship that began so auspiciously back in 1983 when Salonen stepped in at short notice to conduct Mahler's Third Symphony will be consummated at the start of the 2008/09 season when he becomes principal conductor.

He's quite a catch, an impressively cool customer with a clear, composerly approach. The diversity of his repertoire is underpinned by an acute sense of style. If his attitude to music is sometimes a little self-consciously analytical, this is offset by his energy and flair.

It was clear that what really interested him about the Haydn Symphony No 8 "Le Soir" at the start of this programme was its audacity. The change of mood as we entered the salon-like world of the slow movement andante was intensified by his obvious delight in the pairing of cello and bassoon in their dialogue with two solo violins. Salonen, the composer, was engaged; as he was again when solo double bass (Neil Tarlton, excellent) became the unlikely star in the scherzo trio.

Suddenly, the leap to Mahler seemed not so great. The baritone Matthias Goerne sang the Rückert-Lieder with warm, inviting tone and a deep sense of the songs' isolation. Yet there was something odd in the way his breathing at times compromised Mahler's rapt legatos. In the beautiful song "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen", he took an unwieldy breath in the middle of the most sublime phrase of all - "und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet!" ("and take my rest in a place of quietness"). Perhaps he should have taken his lead from the cor anglais player Catherine Lowe, whose beautiful solo showed no signs that she was breathing at all.

Salonen's account of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta breathed with a spontaneity that belied its difficulty. The Philharmonia strings kicked up plenty of rosiny dust, there was a roughness in the ferocious pizzicati. But most of all there was atmosphere. As the opening fugue slowly opened a succession of doors into the recesses of the mind, we pondered where Bernard Herrmann's score for Hitchcock's Psycho would have been without it.

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