Fire and Grace Philharmonia Concert at The Marlowe - Scintillating!

By Ed Streatfield

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Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is like the Bohemian Rhapsody of ballet: either people indulge in every listen or its value has been completely drained due to constant exposure since childhood. I hold the latter opinion, but this disciplined, joyous interpretation reinvigorates my ears like a cotton swab. Cheesy puns aside, the evening started with Sibelius’ Le retour de Lemminkainen. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the principle conductor creates an incredible clarity as the repeating motif is called out by brass and woodwind like a bombastic lark, driven by fierce and disciplined string arpeggios which rise and fall giving the motif a sweet welcome.

The emphasis on clarity and cohesion between the orchestra was maintained throughout the performance despite Salonen allowing musician’s idiosyncrasies to flourish; the main case for this being Nikolai Kugansky’s reassuringly expressive playing during Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1. His hands effortlessly glide across the keys but with every touch he pours emotion from his fingers, ideal for Russian Romanticism. Every staccato bass chord vibrates in you like a tuning fork while the melody dances with grace as Kugansky holds his own against Salonen’s orchestration. These elements of clarity, expression and cohesion ensure that even seeing one of the most overperformed classical works, Swan Lake, performed is worthwhile. The performance retains the pulse of the ballet without restricting the yearning but childlike melodies Tchaikovsky is known for. Not even the accompanying pizzicato strings or the elegant harp are unheard amongst the bombastic brass. Due to this, initial apprehension for the performance evaporated.

Salonen’s conducting provides a perfect beginners interpretation while allowing experienced music fans to re-examine this classical standard with the clarity of emerald. My only qualm with this interpretation however is this works ideally with the melodic poetry of the white swan whose innocence is difficult to perform alongside the black swan’s seductive edge. In order to portray Swan Lake to perfection, one must capture both immaculately. Crucially though, what it did do however, is prove that romantic music is safe in the hands of the Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra.