A Tale of Two Orchestras
In the past decades, Esa-Pekka Salonen has
emerged as one of the most consistently persuasive interpreters of the
twentieth-century post-romantic repertoire, and the chance to hear him lead the
Berlin Philharmonic through works by Ravel and Bartók would, on its own, have
guaranteed an engaging concert. On this evening, however, the main attraction
was the German première of Mr Salonen’s own Sinfonia concertante for
organ and orchestra, which was completed and given its first performance (in Katowice) only six days ago. With Olivier Latry on the Karl Schuke organ of the
Philharmonie and spirited direction from the composer himself, the new work
provided a compelling centrepiece to an evening that never lacked excitement.
The Sinfonia concertante was bookended by orchestral works by Ravel, whose wide-ranging tonal palette and refined orchestration were an undoubted influence on Mr Salonen’s own work. Ma Mère l’Oye, which opened the programme, employed delicate strings and almost ethereal flute to establish a mood of dreamlike wonder, but the hint of purposeful urgency in Mr Salonen’s pacing ensured that the first two movements never lapsed into languid aimlessness. If Mr Salonen’s sense of the work’s gentle rhythms and larger structures were impossible to fault, the balance of the orchestra was equally impressive, moving from hushed splendour to the glowing climax of the final movement without ever losing its essential poise.
Although the first piece was purely orchestral, the dominant presence of the organ console at the front of the stage provided a constant reminder of what was to come. During the past two centuries, the organ and the symphony orchestra have led parallel lives marked by relatively few points of convergence. Of course it was not uncommon for smaller organs to appear as part of the baroque continuo, and the instrument continued to be employed in sacred choral works even up to the time of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, but the grand organs and enlarged orchestras that emerged during the final half of the nineteenth century became increasingly estranged.
It is perhaps not difficult to understand why: the romantic organs sought to encompass the tonal diversity of an entire orchestra within a single instrument, yet the organ occupies a sonic world just far enough removed from the orchestra that, when the two are combined, the strengths of the one tend to obscure rather than complement the strengths of the other. This is not to say that organs have no place in orchestral music – Liszt, Strauss and Mahler all used the instrument to add textural heft to climactic moments – but it is rare to find works that attempt to place the two on an equal footing: Poulenc’s wonderful concerto often seems more like a dialogue between organ and strings than a true fusion, while the ever-popular (and undeniably thrilling) Third symphony of Saint-Saëns arguably doesn’t make full use of the solo instrument’s potential. Even Messiaen, who wrote music of equal grandeur for organ and orchestra and who could perhaps have achieved a true synthesis, shied away from combining the two in his large-scale works.
The central problem faced by Mr Salonen in his Sinfonia concertante was thus the question of how to integrate the parallel sonic worlds of the modern organ and the large orchestra into a unified composition … and the solutions he devised were among the work’s greatest strengths. In order to achieve a balance between these equal and opposite forces, Mr Salonen wrote a solo part that required a high level of technical ability, but often demanded that the virtuosity of the organist be placed in a supporting role; although there were a handful of memorable solo passages, it was the balance and transitions between solo and orchestral parts that seemed more central to the score. Yet for all its exercises in textural complexity Mr Salonen never allowed the rigour and ingenuity of his approaches to overshadow the larger musical plan; the piece remained eloquent, accessible and, in the final sections of the second movement, unexpectedly moving.
The work employed a fairly conventional structure with three movements of roughly equal length. The opening movement, ‘Pavane and Drones’, suggested a dialogue between two orchestras, but instead of highlighting the sonic gulf between massed instruments and dense organ registrations, Mr Salonen wrote passages in which it became increasingly difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. Although the movement opened with a restrained back-and-forth, it soon escalated to exchanges of greater intensity; yet even in the climactic moment, in which strings, mallet instruments and brass were placed against the full weight of the organ, neither force appeared to dominate. Soon the orchestra gave way to a complex solo passage with trills and pedal drones, to which celesta and violin glissandi were eventually added, bringing the movement to an elusive conclusion.
The second movement, ‘Variations and Dirge’, was both the most successful in its balanced deployment of forces and also perhaps the most emotionally involving. It opened with the quietest of strings but built gradually towards a full-orchestra passage of immense power; this, in turn was followed by a magnificent solo-organ coda that recalled Messiaen at his most quietly devout, played with appropriate rapture by Olivier Latry. The final movement, ‘Ghost Montage’ was more rhythmically charged than the previous two, but even in the fast-paced sections Mr Salonen ensured that the transitions between organ and orchestra were finely graded. Only near the end did a percussive thump bring the orchestra to a halt and introduce the closest thing in the piece to a conventional cadenza, a brief but furious passage which Mr Latry delivered with evident delight; and while the movement seemed to be headed in the direction of a blazing finale, the final bars brought the piece to an unexpectedly ambiguous conclusion.
After the numerous and varied excitements of the Sinfonia concertante, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin – which opened the evening’s second half – could have come across as somewhat tame; yet the performance, driven by supple woodwinds and string playing of the highest refinement, was a delight. Each of the four movements exuded an effortless grace, with Mr Salonen employing an array of gently buoyant rhythms to underscore the work’s considerable charm. Nor did Mr Salonen deny us any of the the thrills in Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin suite, which opened with a whirlwind of strings and maintained an extraordinary level of focus and tension for the duration of the piece; indeed Mr Salonen found a consistent balance between Bartók’s illustrative effects and the work’s narrative structure, never over-playing but never understating. In any other programme it would have been the highlight, but on this evening it was the complex interplay of organ and orchestra in the Sinfonia concertante that made the most lasting impression.