When I heard Salonen was bringing the LA Philharmonic to the Barbican, and for a series of Sibelius concerts no less, I wanted to attend. In part because I'm always keen to hear new readings of the composer, but also because Salonen is due to take over at the Philharmonia and so I wanted to size him up. Fortunately, then, one of the concerts fitted in neatly with my plans to jet down for Jansons' concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The programme offered us the first and third symphonies as well as a newish composition by Salonen's compatriot Kaija Saariaho called Quatre instants. Perhaps it doesn't help that Salonen's competition is tough. After all, not three months ago we heard the third symphony in a thrilling reading from Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. But even allowing for this, the result was not much cop. From the opening bars this was too polite, though the playing was pretty fine. A fairly brisk pace, but the orchestra felt much to big for the work. There was little by way of drama. The rich textures of the orchestra were better suited to the second movement, but it was a little rushed. The finale was horribly polite: where was the flair, the drama, the sweep, the oomph, the anything! There were rather too many orchestral fluffs (from the winds at the start to the strings later on). The volume was remarkably constant, the kind of contrast that makes for a satisfying performance was wholly absent.
Things did not improve with Quatre instants. Salonen was joined by soprano Karita Mattila whose thin voice lacked any richness and possessed a painful vibrato at high volumes. Salonen continued his blandness, which was all the more impressive in this work, given just how much appeared to be going on in the score. The poetry, texts by Amin Maalouf, was as bland as the interpretation.
Things picked up somewhat after the interval. Perhaps Salonen had been nervous as the composer was in the audience in the first half, or perhaps everyone involved had had their coffee. Perhaps they were simply tired from being on the road a while. That said, it was far from perfect, the start of the work was somewhat laboured. In the second movement, while he held pauses, he managed to do so without creating any real tension and he failed to get any interesting texture on the icy wind, string motif. The scherzo was taken too fast and played without sufficient bite. The finale was the best, rich and with a degree of sweep. Too quick in places, but towards the end he judged the tempo well and the last five minutes were pretty thrilling.
He played some Ligetti as what was, quite frankly, a rather optimistic encore given the response.