LA Philharmonic/Salonen/Karita Mattila - Barbican, 9 November 2007
LA Philharmonic/Salonen/Ben Heppner - Barbican, 10 November 2007
The third of the LA Phil's four-night Barbican Sibelius cycle saw them tackle his first and third Symphonies. In his Symphony no.3, Sibelius is perhaps most distant from the vodka-soaked nordic miserablism that characterises so much of his work. So, after their cheery and energetic run last week in the first of their four nights, I'd expected it to suit the LA Phil (let's draw a veil here over their second night, so grimly drab that I couldn't depress myself by writing about it).
They surprised me by bringing not just vitality, but a much higher degree of finesse to their trimmed-down ensemble. Salonen's keenly rhythmic sense delineated the galloping pulse of the first movement and controlled the multiple motifs of the third, bringing it to its hymn-like conclusion.
The closer, Symphony no.1, is uncharacteristic for another reason -- it's simply less 'Sibelian', more obviously indebted to his influences, principally Tchaikovsky. With stately pacing and daring dynamics, Salonen patiently unfolded its tragedy and grandeur, rather more willing than he had been last week to probe beneath the surface. It was an utterly gripping performance.
Despite the excellence of the Sibelius, the night really belonged to Karita Mattila, with a group of songs in French, Quatre Instants, written for her by Kaija Saariaho. I'd heard these in the original piano version before, but not the extravagantly sensual orchestral arrangement. Mattila more than measured up to it. In a one-shouldered black dress banded with crystals, frozen white bouffant and scarlet fingernails she towered majestically over Salonen, next to her a cowering shrimp in his habitual curry-house waiter uniform.
Her pure clean tone has a worldliness that reminds me more of Sarah Vaughan than of any operatic contemporary. And in these nordic torch songs it cast a potent spell, from the lilting Attente, to the ardent despair of Douleur, the indecent intensity of Parfum de l'Instant (where Mattila locked eyes with Salonen for a breathstopping minute) and the valedictory Résonances.
Her French would convince no one south of Dover, but Mattila was never for one moment less than utterly immersed in the emotional landscape of the music. Her platinum glamour might evoke a long-lost Gabor sister, but in reality she is the most giving and least plastic of performers. There were yawning seconds of total silence when she'd finished, as we reeled stunned in her wake. Somewhere during the massive applause, Kaija Saariaho suddenly popped up on stage for a huge hug from Mattila. And rightly so - this performance convinced not only that Mattila, here at the height of her powers, is in so many ways the greatest soprano around right now, but also that this is possibly the finest song cycle written in my life time, and one that deserves to be performed many more times.
The LA Phil's final performance, the fifth and sixth Symphonies, couldn't hope to measure up to the previous night, but it was by no means a disappointment.
The translucent lyricism of the opening No.6 shone through, even if its spiritual reflectiveness eluded Salonen.
It was followed by a group of seven Sibelius songs, for which Ben Heppner was drafted in. Heppner, it's fair to say, has a big voice, but John Estacio's orchestral arrangements were even bigger. I suspect the people directly in front of Heppner would have heard more, but sitting towards the side (the same position from which I'd heard Mattila loud and clear), I found his voice largely drowned. In the odd moments where the orchestration thinned out, it was clear Heppner was delivering a thoughtfully nuanced performance, but as for the rest I have little idea.
The night was rescued with a titanic performance of Symphony No.5. Salonen pulled all the stops out here. Unafraid to linger in the tiniest of pianissimos in the first movement, spreading the majestic pooling brass in the last, it was a bold and enthralling account. The six final chords, conducted it appeared with eyes closed, provided emphatic closure.
The encore, Sibelius's much earlier Death of Mélisande, seemed a curiously downbeat way to end the evening, but the juxtaposition with the fifth displayed the resonances between the two.
Here's a video of Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra a few years ago in the fifth - he took the LA Phil a bit faster than this: