Salonen’s scintillating Organ Concerto comes to life in Berlin

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Olivier Latry onstage with Berliner Philharmoniker after the German premiere of Salonen’s Sinfonia Concertante for Organ and Orchestra (2020-22) on Thursday. © Stephan Rabold

Joined by Composer-in-Residence Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium, the full line-up of the Berliner Philharmoniker was gathered onstage at the Philharmonie on Thursday, to deliver a ravishing outing for the evening’s extraordinary playlist. The centerpiece of the programme was Salonen’s new Sinfonia Concertante for Organ and Orchestra (2020-22), a thirty-minute behemoth, given in its spellbinding German premiere with Olivier Latry as soloist.

Co-commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of the Polish radio, Katowice, Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonie de Paris, Los Angeles Philharmonic and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestrer, the Sinfonia Concertante was heard in good company of orchestral masterpieces by Maurice Ravel and Béla Bartók, resulting in pristine programme, one bearing the very essentials of Salonen’s musical credo.

Scored for solo organ and a large orchestra of triple winds, full brass, timpani, three percussionists playing bongos, tom-toms, taikos, bass drum, mallets, tuned gongs, alongside tam-tam, celesta, harp and strings, Salonen’s new concerto is clad in exquisite raiments, with tremendous timbral and harmonic potential embedded. True to his craft, the composer makes full use of those potentials, coming up with one of the most uplifting entries to the genre.

In the course of its three movements, multitude sonic idioms appear within the realm of the score, fused together into Salonen’s highly personal and ever-inspired musical vocabulary. In the composer’s oeuvre, the Sinfonia Concertante stands out as a milestone work, charting new sonorous territories while bearing echoes of several earlier works, namely the radiance of Helix (2005), heard as the augur of Salonen’s residency in December, the cosmology of the Cello Concerto (2017), the nocturnal mysteries of the Violin Concerto (2009) and Nyx (2011) as well as the tremendous vistas of Wing on Wing (2004).

The opening is trademark Salonen; a soaring piccolo line in counterpoint with flickering organ ostinato, shrouded in divisi hue on violas and basses. Titled Pavane and Drones, the misteriso realm of first movement unfolds gradually over the ensuing 106 bars, before bursting into exalted festivities for the full ensemble, zentithing in an earth-shaking tutti chord sounded on bars 149-150. A meditative coda is to follow, closing the movement in fleeting ppp textures.

Instead of monolith solo passages, Salonen’s cadenzas are woven into the musical arch in several sections, scattered throughout the movements, establishing different aspects of soloistic virtues each. Some of them are enthrallingly pensive, while others display flamboyance and steadfastness, giving rise to a caleidoscope of almost tactile sonic imagery.

As indicated by its title, the Variations and Dirge second movement is conceived as a wondrous 202 bar sequence of musical permutations, encompassing a terrific range of colour and texture, embedded in the solo part and the orchestral fabric alike. Here, three mesmerizing cadenzas are given, allowing the soloist to examine both the dexterous and the contemplative aspects of their instrument.

In the Ghost Montage closing movement, the listeners and performers are invited to a splendid masquerade by Salonen; one with Pérotin as the master-of-ceremonies. The composer’s fascination with the 12th-century master of the Notre Dame organa has manifested itself in recent works such as Saltat Sobrius (2020), a string-ensemble fantasy upon the four-part organum Sederunt Principes (1199), and the clarinet concertino Kínēma (2021), featuring a third movement, titled Pérotin Dream, conceived in the manner of timeless paraphrase upon the medieval idiom.

In Sinfonia Concertante, quotation and paraphrase merge, yielding to formidable passages of ecstatic melismata, appearing in stylistic hall of mirrors, covering eight centuries, with direct quotation from Viderunt Omnes (1198) thrown in. Taking his cue from Ravel and Messiaen, perhaps, Salonen weaves together seduction and phantasmagoria, summoning musical tableaux of ravishing intensity into being. Dancing through some 330 bars, the movement lands on its tremendous closing chord, extended in time and fading gradually into rippling silence.

A scintillating performance from Latry and the orchestra under Salonen, the German premiere was ablaze with inspiration and fine-tuned musicality. The solo part was in good hands with Latry, whose inventive commitment resulted in dazzling take on Salonen’s virtuoso writing. Rooted in reactive instrumental discussion, the organ lines and the orchestral fabric were unraveled with finesse and vigor, contributing to an absolutely unforgettable performance.

Appearing as consorts to the Salonen novelty, the orchestral works of Ravel and Bartók completed the programme in the most appealing manner. Heard as the evening’s subtle opener, the five-movement concertante rendition of Ravel’s ballet score Ma Mère l’Oye (1908-10/1911-12) showcased the Berliners’ admirable fluency in conveying the most minutiae detail of musical narrative. A series of precious instrumental gems, the Cinq pièces enfantines revisit some of the most archetypal fairy tales in the Western traditon, turning them into pristine musical miniatures.

Scored for a chamber orchestra of solo winds, apart from two clarinets and two horns, timpani, percussion, harp and strings, the music is rooted in captivating instrumental dramaturgy, presenting the listener with marvelous meditations on the narratives of Sleeping Beauty, Little Tumbling, The Empress of the Pagodas and Beauty and the Beast. Rounding off with a gorgeous Apothéose, the score is an absolute charmer, especially when performed with such delicacy and vividness as Salonen and the members of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Like so many of Ravel’s orchestral scores, both Ma Mère l’Oye and Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17/1919) were based on piano originals. In case of the latter, four movements of the keyboard suite are re-imagined for an ensemble of duple winds and horns, solo trumpet, harp and strings. Written as a series of memorials for friends lost in the Great War, Ravel’s score is of pristine beauty and witty elegance, interwoven with undertones of longing and loss.

Given in extraordinary performance, the outer movements displayed seamless instrumental dexterity and admirable nuance, while the two sublime inner ones, a forlane and a minuet, came off with reflective insight and pin-point characterization.

To provide the evening with a roaring close, Bartók’s 1927 concert hall adaptation from his scandalous ballet pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, op. 19, Sz. 73 (1918-24) was heard in performance of vehement brilliance. Although titled as suite, Bartók’s concertante score is, in fact, a skillfully condensed edition of the original, preserving some two thirds of the music, but dispensing with the brief appearance of chorus near the end the ballet.

As the first staged production of The Miraculous Mandarin was initially banned on moral grounds, the composer was prompted to give the score a new life in concert setting. In this manner, the games of seduction and violence of the storyline became less explicit, although the music lost none of its shock value.

Scored for an orchestra of triple winds and brass, apart from four horns and a tuba, timpani, percussion, keyboards, harp and full strings the twenty-minute suite is abundant with extremes, as the full array of sonics is unleashed into sonic reality. As the music moves away from tonal centers, Bartók’s harmonic imagination is guided by ear, rather than any system, lending the outrageously brilliant score with astonishing dramatic intensity and wildness, evident from the opening measures to the last page double-bar.

Agitated violin arpeggios and hammered woodwind chords open the music, soon joined by full orchestra, to portray the chaotic urban jungle of the industrial era. From here, the score takes a quick turn to the back alleys of some notorious neighborhood, setting the stage for the unnatural events taking place in a hideout. Solo clarinet takes lead, as the music adopts an eerily seductive tone, pre-echoing the phantasmagoric sequence of events involving three tramps, an abused girl and the Miraculous Mandarin.

Speaking in more musical terms, Bartók’s instrumental writing stems from the most striking juxtaposition of utmost sophistication and in-your-face brutality, echoing, to some extent, Igor Stravinsky’s scandalously successful scheme of Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13), while maintaining its own, inimitable character. This fundamentally Bartókian contradiction of the raw and the cooked lends the music with its core impetus, calling forth performers mastering both extremes of the expressive scale.

Under Salonen, the Berliner Philharmoniker proved themselves as an ideal ensemble for The Miraculous Mandarin, providing the audience with an outstanding reading of Bartók’s untamed masterpiece. Shrouded in applause, the orchestra and Salonen were celebrated with befitting enthusiasm, and the evening was brought to its resplendent close.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Olivier Latry, organ

Maurice Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye – Cinq pièces enfantines (1908-10/1911-12) for orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Sinfonia Concertante for Organ and Orchestra (2020-22), German premiere

Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17/1919) – Suite for orchestra

Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, op. 19, Sz. 73 (1918-24/1927) for orchestra

Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

Thursday 19 January 2023, 8 pm

© Jari Kallio

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