wed 19/06/2024

Bronfman, Philharmonia, Salonen, RFH review – celebration around C major | reviews, news & interviews

Bronfman, Philharmonia, Salonen, RFH review – celebration around C major

Bronfman, Philharmonia, Salonen, RFH review – celebration around C major

The brilliant first of a great principal conductor’s two farewell programmes

Full orchestra and very grand piano: the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen with soloist Yefim BronfmanAll images by Luca Migliore

One of the many things we’ll miss when Esa-Pekka Salonen moves on from his 13 years as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor will be his programming. For this first of his farewell concerts, he’s not only chosen what he loves but made sure it all fits.

No two symphonies could be more different than Beethoven’s First and Sibelius’s Seventh (his last), yet they both hover – Beethoven playfully, Sibelius enigmatically – around the key of C major. The multi-part string hymn near the beginning of the Seventh was more than prefaced by the wind and brass of a Stravinsky masterpiece. And if Liszt’s portmanteau Second Concerto served for show and fun, that most centred of leonine pianists Yefim Bronfman anchored us in C major again at the centre with a perfect encore, Schumann’s Arabeske.

Most important of all, an audience is back in the Royal Festival Hall to greet the Philharmonia players with what Simon Rattle the other week called “that noise you make with your hands” as well as loud cheers and a standing ovation. Well deserved; the sheer beauty and spaciousness of the orchestral sound from the spread-out orchestra on the helpfully extended platform, resonating in a hall with fewer people in than usual due to the necessary Covid restrictions, needed our presence there to witness what, more than ever after a year of semi-silence, felt like a miracle. And look, none of the fidgety lighting and smoke which have marred the LPO's livestreams from the same hall. Choose a colour on the magnificently restored organ, stick with it for at least a movement, make sure the players and conductor are in full light, and that's all you need.Philharmonia/Saloneon in Beethoven's First SymphonyThe Beethoven performance (pictured above) had all the virtue of chamber-orchestra crispness – and vivid period timpani – enriched by resonant ballast from five double-basses. Salonen seemed genial but always alert, and the beauty of his conducting technique was a joy in itself in the figures he made with the baton hand as the violins airily elaborate the wind pulsing of the scherzo’s trio. Those humorous attempts to make a complete scale from G in the finale’s opening Adagio were managed with supernatural skill, and the watchful interplay between second violinist Annabelle Meare and leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay told us, as the sounds already had, what sheer joy there was in being back and playing together.

Bronfman (pictured below with Salonen) is a master who can roar like a lion – in the case of the Liszt Concerto, a rather comical one prefiguring the proud beast of Saint-SaënsCarnival of the Animals – and coo like any sucking dove in transcendental reverie. It doesn’t matter that swathes of this work make us laugh now with their romantic excess; there’s joy there too. Yet never as much deep poetry, despite the interesting chord sequences, as in the Schumann Arabeske; Bronfman made the contrasting episodes troubled, the main sequences objectively beautiful, the coda exquisite. Yefim Bronfman and Esa-Pekka SalonenIf the Beethoven was revelatory, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments proved even more so in this astounding performance. Having the ensemble spread the whole width of the extended platform, horns to the left answering trombones and tuba to the right, gave extra frissons, but the real mastery was in how Salonen dovetailed the various “soundings-together” (sym-phonies) to create an almost operatic, certainly very vocal set of dialogues, until the hieratic slow conclusion (in memory of Debussy), moving to tears.

Salonen’s approach to the symphonies of his most famous compatriot Sibelius has always, for me, been hit and miss: grandiose compared to the lighter touch and freer flow of other Finnish interpreters like Sakari Oramo, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Okko Kamu. This Seventh was more evocative of the Grand Canyon than of northern forests and lakes – and we tend to be right at the bottom, grateful to catch glimpses of the sky. But that’s how he sees and hears it, and you couldn’t argue with the masterly transitions, the superb solo trombone which anchors the piece (Byron Fulcher), the gilded edge of horns or – once again – those heartfelt strings. For the concert as a whole, the standing ovation was, I repeat, well deserved.


Thank you for this brilliant and spot-on review. As a member of the orchestra, it was a significant moment to witness a return to live performance after a traumatic year. The ability to perform in person is doubly enhanced and encouraged when reading how appreciated our musicians truly are. With deepest gratitude.

It's so good to hear from a player - thank you for taking the trouble. I think we realise more than ever what a two-way thing it is between performers and audience. At times last night I was even struck by the miracle of togetherness. So deepest gratitude to you all, too.

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