Philharmonia/Uchida/Salonen review – smaller scale but beautiful, Salonen bows out with a whisper | The Philharmonia Orchestra


The Philharmonia was back in front of an audience just in time to bid farewell to Esa-Pekka Salonen, who hands over as principal conductor to Santtu-Matias Rouvali this autumn. In other circumstances Salonen might have liked to go out with a bang, as he told us from the podium during a chatty preamble. Instead, here was a whisper: a perfectly put-together programme, making a virtue of the fact that only around half of his orchestra could fit on the stage under distancing rules, and setting the seal on his 13-year tenure in a very personal way.

This wasn’t all about Salonen, though; at first it was about JS Bach. First up was a dreamy Bach-meets-Mahler string transcription of the aria Bist du bei mir (actually by Stölzel, though long attributed to Bach) by Otto Klemperer, the Philharmonia’s first principal conductor. In Webern’s take on the Ricercare a 6 from The Musical Offering, the Philharmonia players seamlessly passed the music around, note by note, creating textures that constantly slipped out of one’s grasp. Berio’s arrangement of Contrapunctus 19 from The Art of Fugue seemed to be trying to do the same thing, but with longer brushstrokes and with a more limited palette; yet the closing two minutes, in which the music cranks out of alignment and gets stuck on a mournful dissonance, had a powerful impact.

Salonen’s own music had to feature somewhere. His 10-minute piece Fog is a play on the initials of the architect Frank Gehry, who designed the home venue of Salonen’s “other” orchestra, the LA Phil. It riffs on the Prelude to Bach’s E major partita for solo violin; this performance, the premiere of its full orchestral version, followed without skipping a beat from that piece itself, played by Benjamin Gilmore from the royal box. Salonen’s glinting manipulation of Bach’s phrases into swathes of repetitive motion, now fast, now stretched slow, sounded vibrant.

And the best was to come: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3, which reunited Salonen with Mitsuko Uchida. The concerto seemed a taut drama about light versus dark, with Uchida playful yet profound, creating the kind of communal moments of close listening we’ve all been missing. Schoenberg’s tiny tick-tocking Little Piano Piece, Op 19 No 2, less than a minute long, was the perfect encore – a whisper, but such a meaningful one.

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