From the glinting Aegean as conjured by Sibelius’s mellifluous pair of flutes with piccolo piping in The Oceanides to the propulsive excitement at the end of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first return to the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2019 (and since the announcement of his departure in 2021) was a lesson in symbiotic chemistry between conductor and orchestra.
Salonen’s impressive conducting gestures – commanding a slow fluid beat, as in much of the Sibelius, yet burst into vehement whiplash gesticulating in faster music, as in the final movements of both his own Cello Concerto and the Bartók – are mesmeric to watch both by players and audience alike, resulting in a thrilling concert experience. Salonen’s Cello Concerto was written for Yo-Yo Ma, who brought it to London within three weeks of its March 2017 Chicago premiere, though with the New York Philharmonic on its final tour with Alan Gilbert. I was very impressed then, a view confirmed with the Sony recording to be released next week (LA Phil, Ma and Salonen, as reviewed by our editor) and with this performance with Truls Mørk.
Salonen achieves a memorable lyrical solo line for the cello which, in the first of three unmarked movements, he likens to a comet freewheeling through space, sounded in primeval orchestral swirling in which certain instruments come into focus and duet with the soloist, particularly in the contrastingly fast Finale, specifically, the E-flat clarinet (Jennifer McLaren) and percussionist Emmanuel Curt, who took his place on Salonen’s right, with bongos, flexitones, woodblocks and sand-shakers. Throughout this cosmic dance Mørk was fearless with a complex switching from pizzicato to short bowed phrases and back, ending up off the fingerboard at the stratosphere of the cello’s range which melts into sampled loops and spirals created out of cello sounds that evaporate out of earshot, not only was it extremely effective but very well produced; a great performance.
But that only matched the rest of the concert. Sibelius’s sustained and slowing seascape was brilliantly evoked with an acute ear to instrumental timbre only topped by the extraordinary attention to detail Salonen gave Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Contrasting with the dark-hued halting opening on the lower strings and the eerie watery spinning of the aching central ‘Elegy, the quirky second and fourth movements – the interlocking instrumental pairs of the former and the suddenly interrupted ‘Intermezzo’, here by two particularly vibrant rasping trombones – brought a more playful demeanour before the horn rally and electrically charged opening of the Finale. The combination of multiple-stopped violas and cellos plucking and the fugal entries of scurrying violins was so kinetic you could have supplemented the national grid with it.