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The Very Model of a Modern Mahler Symphony from Esa-Pekka Salonen

19 November 2012

Why is it that when a conductor demands silence after the end of a Mahler 9 the audience is happy to give it, but when the final few bars are drifting on everyone gets bored and coughs away relentlessly?

Anyway, this was very good from the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka. An excerpt from my review follows, and you can read the rest of it here.

Salonen has little truck with the cosseting that other conductors find to offset the Ninth’s horrors. Much as Salonen knows that this is a piece fundamentally about life rather than death, and that at times it can be treated sentimentally, in his hands this music seems to contain beauties that, as Schoenberg put it, “dispense with visceral warmth”. Even if he doesn’t push things quite as far as Schoenberg also thought – that the Ninth could best be appreciated by those “who feel comfortable in a climate of intellectual coldness” – there is a distance to his reading. Not for him the overwrought emotionality of Leonard Bernstein: instead Salonen displays a lucid attention to detail, a restraint with rubato, and an eye for modernist colour and motivic development.

On those terms – and I am not one of those who finds this approach uninvolving, having no preference between schools – this was as good a performance from Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra as one could expect. Throughout the symphony this orchestra revelled in the opportunities that Mahler’s tiny cells of phrasing provide for characterised solo or sectional work, whether that meant a supreme attention to counterpoint in the strings or the individual contributions of principals Samuel Coles, Gordon Hunt, Katy Woolley, and others. It was those inner workings that made this reading special. The clarity of sound that Salonen drew from the Philharmonia exposed Mahler’s counterpoint with uncanny power, which is no small triumph in the fuzzily dead acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall. Even at the extreme speeds Salonen adopted for the Rondo-Burleske, usually unheard fugal details emerged.


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