Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Philharmonia/Salonen, 23 September 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Bartók – The Miraculous Mandarin: Suite, op.19
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Stravinsky – Œdipus Rex

Vadim Repin (violin)

Œedipus – Stephen Gould
Jocasta – Ekaterina Gubanova
Creon/Messenger – Kyle Ketelsen
Franz-Josef Selig – Tiresias
Andrew Kennedy – Shepherd
Simon Russell Beale – Speaker

Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

This ‘gala concert’ marked the beginning of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Thankfully, there was little of the ‘gala’ to it; so far as I could tell, it was simply the season’s opening concert, which in general augured well for the new regime.

Certainly the Miraculous Mandarin suite fared very well indeed. Salonen ensured a commendable clarity throughout, married to a fine sense of rhythm – security, not stiffness – and not just in the faster music. One was never able to forget that this was music for the stage and a ballet at that, even in suite form, although as ever, I could not help regretting that the complete ballet was not being performed. The introduction (‘The thugs instruct the girl’) was splendidly thuggish, each subsequent episode being just as well characterised. As the prostitute enticed the old roué, we heard a thoroughly enticing yet menacing clarinet solo against undoubted menace from the ’cellos. The nastiness of the later clarinet duet was if anything still more impressive, as was the slightly earlier entry of the harp and trombones. Sleazy trombone slides made their mark, another example of the straightforwardly superlative work throughout from the trio of Philharmonia trombones. And the concert ending proved viscerally exciting, even if we missed the end of the ballet proper.

There followed a puzzling performance of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, which I have always – unfashionably – much preferred over his first. Salonen contributed a fine ear for orchestral detail, imparting to the score a transparency that it often lacks. There were, however, some odd decisions concerning tempi, whether from him, Vadim Repin, or both. I know that the first movement is marked Allegro, but I felt that it would have benefited from a slightly slower tempo; the music often sounded a little skated over. There was also a marked lack of ‘Russianness’. Rather surprisingly, given the soloist, we often sounded closer to the Ravelian world of The love for three oranges than to the works of Prokofiev’s Soviet period. With regard to the composer’s inimitable bittersweetness, Repin generally veered more towards the sweet than to the bitter. The end of the movement, however, was very slow and downbeat in mood, which seemed to be more Salonen’s doing. The Andante fared best of the three movements. It sounded fastish for such a tempo marking but it flowed nicely. Here, the detail of Repin’s line was very special; every note sounded deeply considered both in itself and in relation to the others. He evinced a rapt lyricism wholly in tune with Prokofiev’s score. The Philharmonia’s woodwind sounded simply ravishing. And yet, there was a strange parallel with the end of the first movement: the final statement of the principal theme was taken very slowly and Salonen let it slow down further, until it pretty much ground to a halt. After this, the speed of the final Presto in moto perpetuo announced a sudden mood change. Again, there was much finely-etched orchestral detail, especially from the woodwind, although the castanets sounded disappointingly lacklustre. Repin could really sound the virtuoso here – and he did. However, there were times when the music came dangerously close to veering out of control, although it never quite fell apart. I wonder how much joint rehearsal time the violinist and orchestra had been permitted.

Salonen clearly knows his Œdipus Rex, having recorded the work with Swedish forces for Sony and presenting a fine performance here. The last two times I had heard Œdipus Rex were both performances under Valery Gergiev, one with his Mariinsky forces and one with the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev unsurprisingly presents a far more ‘Russian’ conception of the work, sometimes breathtakingly so. If I might prefer that, I have to admit that Salonen’s greater emphasis on the neo-classical probably stands closer to the heart – or lack of it – of Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio. The choruses framing the work packed quite a punch indeed, both from the orchestra – which sounded superb throughout – and from the Philharmonia Voices. Indeed, the choral contribution was always excellent, although a larger chorus would ultimately have been beneficial. That control of rhythm on which I remarked in the Bartók was just as evident here, with equally fine results. One could never escape the ominous, properly fatal ostinati, just as Œdipus cannot escape the snare of Fate. There sounded – disconcertingly – some of the emptiness Schoenberg heard in the work but that is no criticism of the performance, nor even – at least in my case – of the work itself. I might have liked it less but I cannot deny that it serves its dramatic purpose magnificently. (I would certainly deny Schoenberg’s claim that it is ‘all negative: unusual theatre, unusual resolution of the action, unusual vocal writing, ... [etc.] without being anything in particular.') Simon Russell Beale was everything one could have asked for as the Speaker. This may be a profoundly, unsettlingly, artificial work, but that need not mean we should endure over-the-top ac-tor-li-ness in it. He sounded as ‘natural’ as one could envisage, to the work’s great benefit. Stephen Gould was not a great Œdipus. He seemed incapable of presenting a modulated account of his line or even his part. Much was shouted although he showed himself perfectly capable of reining in his voice on occasion. It did not help that he looked as though he might have been the father of Ekaterina Gubanova’s Jocasta rather than her son. I liked her very ‘Russian’ portrayal, wide vibrato and all, although I can imagine that some might have thought it jarred a little with the rest of the performance. Kyle Ketelsen, fresh from his triumphant Leporello for the Royal Opera, proved every bit as adept – and therefore displayed considerable versatility – as Creon and the Messenger. His cries ‘Divum Jocastæ caput mortuum’ (‘The divine Jocasta is dead!’) were spine-tingling, as was their interaction with the Chorus. Andrew Kennedy sounded most odd – almost as if he were attempting an impression of Peter Pears – when he appeared as the Shepherd, although he was greatly improved in his duet with the Messenger. So if the vocal contribution, at least considered as a whole, was not at the level of the orchestral or of Salonen’s direction, this remained a considerable account of Œdipus Rex.