Lutosławski, Beethoven, Stravinksy

The Philharmonia Orchestra of London under Chief Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen visited the Konzerthaus this evening for an eclectic program of Funeral Music for String Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski, Symphony #7 by Ludwig van Beethoven, and the Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. One of these pieces was out of place: maybe the Lutosławski as the only one without dance rhythm, maybe the Beethoven as being fully tonal and coming from the wrong century, or maybe the Stravinsky as the fact that Spring really has not yet begun in Vienna this year despite having reach the end of May.

Lutosławski’s atonal Funeral Music from 1958 was worth a hearing, although I am not sure I liked it. He traced the circle of life, starting small, then growing in sound and liveliness, before ultimately receding to the original tone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The string orchestra emerged somewhat murkily, however – and not clear whether this was Lutosławski’s intention or whether they simply sound this way normally.

I also had trouble understanding what to make of this performance of Beethoven’s Seventh. I did not hear the relationship with the modern pieces on the program. Although this symphony is known for its dancing rhythms, tonight’s interpretation did not dance sufficiently. I also had issues with the balance, as some instruments came across in the wrong proportions to others, and I could not make sense of it all. As a former trumpet player, I do tend to listen closely for the trumpet line, but tonight I did not have to, as Salonen clearly augmented it not only when the trumpets had the melody but also when they only payed to add background color (tonight, very much in the foreground). The trumpeters themselves performed using what looked like herald trumpets, so they wanted a particular sound. I did wonder if, maybe, Salonen had not done a soundcheck of the Konzerthaus (the orchestra is only visiting for one night) and may have gotten the balance wrong; or maybe my seat just picked up the sounds wrong (I do not go often to the Konzerthaus, and have never sat where I sat tonight; although acoustics are good, I do not know the nuances of the hall). I figured my question would receive an answer after the intermission, as the Rite of Spring requires a larger orchestra and has a lot of exposed lines, so I could see if the balance remained off or if it had been Salonen’s intention.

The Stravinsky indeed answered my question from before the intermission. What I heard in the first half must have been intentional, since no problems with balance or sound came across in the second half of the concert. Whereas I can now write off the two works before the intermission, the Philharmonia treated us to a downright righteous Rite of Spring afterwards. The whole orchestra spoke Stravinsky’s idiom, achieving all the nuances of tone, the contrasts between sweet Spring and harsh reality, the sacred celebration and the profane passion. I have no further questions. Well, maybe one: when will Spring arrive this year?

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