The Philharmonia- David Fray, Esa-Pekke Salonen, April 10th, 2018

There are concerts which are poor (mercifully very rare in Leicester), there are concerts which are mediocre, there are those which pass an hour or two pleasantly, and then there are those which are good or even very good , of which we seem in Leicester to have had more than our fair share this season. Then finally there are those which are revelatory , never to be forgotten experiences. Into that category came the concert given in DMH by the Philharmonia under its chief conductor Esa-Pekke Salonen, with, as soloist, David Fray. It was much anticipated, as the large audience showed, but for this listener at least the actuality transcended by a distance the expectation.

Perhaps the total package offered helped putting the mind into a receptive state, in that as Friend  there was the opportunity to attend a 90 minute rehearsal  and then came a conversation between John Florance and the conductor before the concert started. I found the rehearsal in itself rather moving. So often these peeps behind the scene frankly reveal very little . They often seem little more than run throughs. This was different. What came across, beyond the super efficiency in which conductor and orchestra used the time, was the palpable rapport and oneness of thought on the stage, no grandstanding at all. In the talk the conductor spoke of the Philharmonia with self evident affection ,remarking that other conductors he had spoken to also were obviously full of admiration about how it had preserved over the years, even with obviously great changes of personnel,  a culture that made it the most friendly of orchestras. I remembered also how the late Lorin Maazel once remarked on his 21st century return to conduct them regularly that he thought them to be quite the easiest orchestra in the world to conduct and that, back in the dark ages, Toscanini after his first rehearsal with them, is alleged to have said to Walter Legge, the founder of the orchestra, that a conductor who could not make fine music with his orchestra had no right to conduct. One could see both aspects in this rehearsal.

So perhaps by the time one had arrived at the actual concert one was in a super receptive mood. Whatever , one of the things that immediately struck home was something that has been often commented upon in regard to front rank British orchestras and that is the difference between what they deliver in rehearsal and what comes out in the actual concert, when the voltage seems of a different order. What I heard in rehearsal here seemed impressive enough, I thought, but it was as nothing compared with the vibrancy of sound in the concert itself. Some of that might be down to the acoustics, to having a full rather than an empty hall, but even that could not explain fully the difference between the two sounds.

That applied as much to the pianist David Fray in Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto.  In February last year, I found this artist rather underwhelming on his debut in the city but I did wonder at the time whether the piano he played upon was largely to blame. Well ,this time he played on DMH’s Fazioli and I can only report that the difference it appeared to make was startling. It could have been that the pianist prefers Beethoven to Schumann but somehow I doubt this since the qualities in his playing here would have served quite as well with the latter composer. There was in the performance a crystalline clarity and poetry which I found utterly beguiling, with subtle phrasing and a lovely range of colour. The ending of the slow movement  in its bareness of utterance was delivered as something utterly ethereal and the last movement had a lightness of tread and wit which was delightful . Just to remind us that it was Beethoven and not Mozart, the conductor employed a quite large body of strings and with the lengthy orchestral interventions in this work being  suitably dramatic and weighty , the whole performance displayed both sides of the coin to perfection.

And so to Mahler’s First Symphony. I have long ago come to the conclusion that people’s opinions as to how this composer’s music should be performed tend to be sometimes quite stupidly definite and prescriptive.  Not so long ago in many quarters he was unmentionable as a composer. When at Oxford in the 50’s I was told by the organ scholar of my college that the Professor of Music had declared in his hearing that the only work of Mahler which would maintain a place in the repertory would be the Song of the Earth. A few years after this, in the 60’s, my wife and I had Mahler coming out of our ears. It was wonder after wonder and yet another argument then started raging as to how his music should be performed. Klemperer was then in London the high priest of Mahler performance since he had worked with the composer as a young man.  However, so had Bruno Walter who was still conducting at that time ( but very rarely in London)and clearly the two men had very different ideas about the master’s intentions. I remember a TV programme on which Klemperer appeared and in which he declared in regard to Mahler performance Walter to be a moralist whilst he said, with a gleam in his eye, that he was an amoralist. I took this to mean that he found Walter’s performances over indulgent. That was certainly not true of Klemperer’s interpretations  in which to a fault if my memory is accurate he presented a Mahler that was memorably sardonic , biting, rasping, rough at the edges.

Rather sadly, quite often savage polarisation of opinion remains to this day and has affected  on occasions critical  judgements of  Esa- Pekke Salonen’s performances of Mahler. I still shudder when I remember reading on a web site a New York critic’s review of a performance of his of a Mahler symphony, I think no.6,, a review  which, whilst praising the Philharmonia , dismissed the conductor’s interpretation as essentially ‘ unmusical’, a truly astounding comment to make of one of the most outstanding musicians of our age or indeed of  any age I have lived through.

For me that profound musicianship emerged in spades in this performance. It had a sovereign control which is so necessary in Mahler if the disparate elements that are so part of Mahler’s musical universe are not to fly apart bringing the structure tumbling down. Conversely , the problem can be that such control can make the music sound almost clinical ( I found Boulez’s  performances could tend to be like that ) but here never for a moment did I feel that the emotion and the drama were underplayed.  I shall never forget how in the DMH the awakening of nature seemed to come from the very deepest parts of the earth. The opening pianissimo bordered on silence. Freres Jacques  was wonderfully menacing, as was the outburst that heralds the start of the final movement. This had a truly colossal striking force, only for it to be topped if anything  by peroration at the symphony’s  end.

However, equally impressive were the quieter moments of the symphony . The wonderful thing it seemed to me was that the interpretation in the lovely but fleeting song like interludes in the last two movements avoided any suggestion of syrup. Given what happens in the rest of the symphony one certainly felt that the beauty was not entirely to be believed. The sardonic was never quite absent perhaps, yet at the same time tears were brought to the eyes that such a world could be thought to exist at all. Here the string playing wonderfully avoided any tendency to lushness, managing somehow to create a sound both warm and astoundingly  pure.

Overall, the orchestra was on the kind of form which leads this listener to think it a musical body with few rivals anywhere in the world and its conductor on the evidence of this night fit to be given a place in some Valhalla for great musicians. The audience I am pleased to say seemed to be of like mind!

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