The visit to the festival of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia provided an interesting contrast with last week's appearances by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The former closed their stay with The Rite of Spring, the latter with the original version of The Firebird. While Nagano and the Montréal hit the money notes and got some exciting climaxes, they often lost focus in between and both the ensemble and solo playing left a little to be desired. By contrast, the Philharmonia provided something of a masterclass, giving us a vivid half hour of sheer drama, passion and violence. When played like this, you can easily imagine how a riot greeted the first performance; in hands such as Salonen's and the Philharmonia's this music still feels new, fresh, alive and dangerous.
Salonen also ensured the momentum never flagged between the climaxes and was helped on his way by superb playing from all sections - be it the dramatic punctuation of the timpani and drum, or the ferocious bowing of the strings. In fairness, this is slightly comparing apples and oranges since The Rite is a different and arguably tighter composition than The Firebird, but even allowing for such caveats, this was a performance on another level. The climaxes punched harder. Indeed, such was the orchestra's precision that it did at times feel like the musical equivalent of being punched in the face by upwards of a hundred people simultaneously.
The programme had opened with Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy. It is a somewhat mad piece, generously orchestrated (outside Janáček's Sinfonietta, I'm not sure when I last saw so many trumpets on stage) and complete with another outing for the Usher Hall organ. Oscillating between the sort of ecstasy that one finds in Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and the more frantic and energetic kind, it made for a generally thrilling curtain raiser. That said, it did repeat itself a little and would perhaps have been more effective if it were more tightly edited.
Between them was found another connecting theme in the overall festival programme: Ravel's Shéhérazade. Here a thinned down Philharmonia beautifully delivered Ravel's exquisite textures, fully evoking the words he was setting. Mezzo Kelley O'Connor was not quite perfect. On the one hand her voice had a nice colour to it and brought an added emotion, but her diction was poor and it was difficult to make out the words. Then again, I did wonder whether Ravel was using the voice as much as another instrument as for the words. Clearly either the Festival or the Usher Hall (or a breakdown in communications between the two) didn't think the words were very important, since they neglected to bring up the house lights so that those of us who'd splashed out on a programme could actually see the text.
Still, such niggles are minor when set against such a well chosen and superbly executed programme. I am now doubly looking forward to catching this team's Kullervo in London next month.