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November 8, 2012

In Philharmonia performance of Beethoven and Berlioz, conductor's personality is manifest

Esa-Pekka Salonen is rightly characterized as a world-class conductor as well as a composer of uncommon talent. However, because he presided over the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the two decades of my upbringing in that city, his idiosyncrasies are as definitive for me as a Berlin resident of the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s would find those of the late conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Herbert von Karajan. I disclaim, therefore, an archive of experience of Salonen that could either illuminate or cloud my judgment of his conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra of London this past Wednesday at Symphony Center.

One disadvantage of living in proximity to a top-five symphony orchestra is that there are only four other orchestras in the world capable of seeming impressive (The ones usually mentioned are the London Symphony, Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, and Amsterdam Concertgebouw, in increasing order of eminence). The Philharmonia Orchestra of London has enjoyed close to 70 years of association with preeminent conductors—von Karajan, for one, was employed as its music director—and is composed of musicians of great talent, but its instrumentalists are not up to the impossibly high standards the CSO has set. The strings, though warm and full of energy, lacked total precision; the brass (particularly in the Berlioz) had bombast to spare (a complaint that could be directed at the composer), but did not match the richness of the CSO’s legendary members.

Beethoven (1770-1827) has always been a favorite composer of Salonen’s—the Fifth Symphony was featured in the final concert Salonen conducted as Music Director of the Philharmonic—and tonight he appeared, as much as an austere Nordic intellectual ever does, to enjoy himself. The Second Symphony (1801) was written as the composer was coming to terms with his developing deafness in the rural village of Heilgenstadt, in the four-movement mold that Beethoven’s teacher Franz Joseph Haydn perfected in his final dozen symphonies, collectively called the London Symphonies. The first movement opens with a slow introduction that leads into the lively (“vivace”) main section, and together that section and the slow second movement, each about ten minutes, comprise at least two thirds of the total work. The structural innovation comes in the third movement, when Beethoven discards the Minuet and Trio that had been used for the half century since the symphony emerged as a genre in favor of the scherzo.

Salonen’s interpretation of the lively work was infused with intense personality—by the boisterous finale, his force of character came across as scarcely less forceful than that of the composer himself. The highlight of the Beethoven piece, though, was the larghetto, slow enough that the careful lyricism was hardly compromised by the minor technical shortcomings of the Philharmonia, which Salonen executed with good taste.

The program note for the Symphonie Fantastique called it the most “amazing” first symphony ever written—and while the work is surprising, the first symphonies of Brahms and Mahler (the two most obvious examples) are immeasurably finer aesthetic achievements. Berlioz’s work is programmatic—that is, attached to a storyline and not merely abstract musical precepts—and tells the shocking story of an artist obsessed with a girl who does not requite his love. She eventually takes a non-lethal dose of opium and has a vision of his execution. It is a campy prospect, and Berlioz’s rendering of it is as overwrought and self-indulgent as it is harmonically inventive, structurally tethered as it is to the paradigms Beethoven hammered out a generation before. It may be ungenerous to say that the Philharmonia performed the symphony as well as anyone could have—the performance did not lack excitement, and Salonen had an intelligent grasp of the direction of the work and its overall structure. However, the work, like some of the more bombastic compositions of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, has a ceiling for how seriously it can be taken.

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