Salonen, Philharmonia Orchestra serve up volatile Berlioz

November 08, 2012

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Berlioz Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

The Philharmonia Orchestra returned to Chicago Wednesday night under current principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s most popular podium guests.

On their current eight-city North American tour, Salonen and the Philharmonia are presenting some strikingly ambitious programs, including Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 and a concert version of Berg’s Wozzeck. Unfortunately, Chicago is getting a safety-first lineup of Beethoven and Berlioz. Whether the choice of the tour managers, Symphony Center Presents, or both, it’s an awfully conservative program for a city like Chicago, even by touring orchestra standards.

That said, while many London orchestras have had their ups and downs over the last decade, the Philharmonia has enjoyed a consistently high reputation. With the ensemble’s storied history of podium leaders like Riccardo Muti, Otto Klemperer, and Christoph von Dohnanyi, it’s no wonder, and under Salonen the Philharmonia musicians made a most impressive showing Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is about as good a test drive for an orchestra as there is, and the London musicians emerged with flying colors. Salonen directed a firmly outlined and boldly projected account of the French composer’s phantasmagorical fantasy. Yet for all its polished playing and volatile bravura, the performance could have used more interpretive individuality at times. Also, for much of the performance—and the evening—it felt like the orchestra was pushing its collective sound too hard with overemphatic playing a notch or two louder than necessary.

Still, this was a well-played and often thrilling performance with several worthy moments: the delicacy of the string playing in the introduction; the airy grace and lightness of the waltz in the “Un Bal” movement; the evocative duet between offstage oboe and English horn. One will rarely hear the “March to the Scaffold” played with such fire and scrupulous balancing, and the frenzied coda of the symphony was combustible and exhilarating, quickly bringing the audience to its feet. Special kudos to the superb playing of English hornist Jill Crowther, flutist Samuel Coles and clarinetist Mark van de Wiel.

A rousingly virtuosic encore of the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Lohengrin sealed the evening with notably robust playing by the Philharmonia trombones.

The Beethoven Second Symphony that opened the concert fared less well, with the timpanist coming  in a beat ahead of the orchestra on the opening chord. For a conductor as excellent and experienced as Salonen, I’m not convinced that Beethoven is his guy. While mostly polished technically, the outer movements were aggressive and hard-driven to the extreme, shorting this early work’s charm and humor with some coarse and blaring horn moments. The Larghetto came off best, with Salonen eliciting a flowing account with sweetly luminous string playing.

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