Now rarely seen in London when not part of a Philharmonia Orchestra series, Esa-Pekka Salonen opened his latest festival – Stravinsky Myths and Rituals, which is running through until September – with a suitably ambitious programme that included two ballet scores, one of which was danced, and a smaller-scale work standing in as an overture. It certainly transformed the Royal Festival Hall with a true sense of occasion and was greeted with justified fervour.
And (as befits a day when Premier League football teams were battling out for final places, save Manchester United and Bournemouth) you could regard it as a game of two halves – not quality-wise but in presentation. For the first half, the back riser of the stage was raised to its highest extent and the choir area was halved in size to form a dancing area for Armitage Gone! Dance to perform Agon. All the other risers were at the lowest position so the Philharmonia was on one level, with Salonen on a slightly higher podium. Above, the white ‘sails’ that normally act as a sound baffle were vertical, so that Agon could be lit, and together these factors had a noticeable effect on the sound, more full-bodied in Symphonies of Wind Instruments and indeed the little trumpet fanfare that heralded it (taken from Agon) to connect the two.
During the interval there was a transformation: indeed reference to “Rituals” could have been applied to the army of stage hands and players who re-dressed the stage, hauling in risers for the wind, man-handling the timpani and percussion up onto the highest riser and overseeing the raising of the other risers around the stage. It was a herculean effort achieved with minimum fuss and seemingly just as choreographed as the dancers in Agon. And it had a dramatic effect on the sound. Robin O’Neill’s plaintive bassoon solo was noticeably in a drier acoustic than before the interval. Interestingly BBC Radio 3 engineered the concert in a different way to usual, with none of the dual microphones strung over the front stalls.
And so to the music. The two halves displayed contrasting sides of Stravinsky’s musical make-up: the first his urbane, refined and, in Agon, neo-classical leanings, while the second half transported us back to a more primeval, guttural composer. Salonen has long since proved himself an expert Stravinskian. He melded the final bars of the Debussy-tribute Symphonies into the opening of the Balanchine Agon, with six dancers – three of each sex – all dressed in red shorts and shirts, with Clifton Taylor’s red-infused lighting (not good for radio!).
While Stravinsky’s score states “for 12 dancers” here we had Karole Armitage’s lithe sextet, both in bodily flexibility and arrangement into pairs, trios or quartets for each of the sections. You could also count Salonen’s graceful swooping gesticulations as choreographed too and the dancers’ close proximity to the players created a strong sense of unity; Stravinsky’s 1957 score a world away (let alone some forty-four years) from The Rite of Spring.
Perhaps, though, it’s not surprising that The Rite made the most impact. This is the fourth time I’ve seen Salonen conduct the Philharmonia in this work at this venue (10 October 1989 – at the time of the Sony recording, 27 November 2001 and 10 February 2008), and it never ceases to captivate and thrill. At this account my attention was drawn to a myriad of detail – pizzicato for third-desk double bass, the importance of the alto flute (Samuel Coles) not only solo but also in duet with E-flat clarinet (Jennifer McLaren) or with Zsolt-Tihamér Vistonay’s harmonics. Also notable was the extraordinarily pianissimo of the muted trumpets in the ‘Introduction’ to the second part (although only marked piano) and, just moments before, the held note of trombones and tubas against the clipped final note of all the rest at the end of the first part. Indeed an inadvertent slip – up the octave – on a cor anglais note aside, this was as tight and as viscerally powerful as you could want.
Myths & Rituals continues on May 26 with Renard, Mavra and Les noces.