The London Philharmonia stuns audiences with breathtaking performances of German repertoire

Monday, March 18, 2019 - 1:00am

The London Philharmonia’s performance for the University Musical Society in Hill Auditorium this past Thursday was a tour de force in late-19th-century German orchestral music. After a Tuesday night performance of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Cello Concerto” and Stravinsky’s complete ballet version of “The Firebird,” the orchestra settled on two staples of the repertoire: Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”) and Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 7 in E Major.”

Few orchestras possess the broad dynamic range of the London Philharmonia. At the beginning of the “Verklärte Nacht,” the quiet end of the strings that were on display — the first few notes were just barely audible, seeming to grow out of the hushed, expectant silence that enveloped the hall. (“Verklärte Nacht” is written for string orchestra.)

From this quiet beginning, the piece quickly blossomed into an active, highly complex texture. Fragmented melodic lines in various keys were passed around the orchestra. At one point, a solo line was passed from the concertmaster to the principal second, then to the principal viola and finally the principal cello. Had I closed my eyes, I would have no idea that the line was moving between instruments — the line moved seamlessly and effortlessly between instrumentalists.

One common pitfall in performances of “Verklärte Nacht” is the dissonance of the harmony, as it sometimes begins to overpower the searching, complex melodic textures that lie hidden under the surface. Yet at no point in this performance did I begin to feel as though the piece was losing momentum. Salonen managed to keep the orchestra’s intensity intact, preserving a gradual crescendo over nearly 20 minutes of music, even as minor, local zeniths came and went.

Towards the end of the piece, Schoenberg returns to the tonal harmonies of his immediate predecessors and tonal contemporaries. Salonen chose to emphasize this return to tonality by slowing the tempo slightly, relaxing for a brief moment in unexpected triadic harmonies.

While I have listened to this piece many times before, this was a fresh take that I found interesting and oddly compelling, particularly given the Bruckner piece that followed. Though Schoenberg is normally viewed as a highly innovative serialist figure, this performance made his music seem almost derivative in regards to that of Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner and other late-19th-century German composers. The opening of the piece had been highly dissonant; the ending was arresting and beautiful.

After the intermission, the strings returned to the stage with the percussion, brass and woodwind sections for Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 7 in E Major.” After the timbral simplicity of the first piece, the addition of these sections was a little overwhelming — I found myself reacting in shock to the volume and power of the first chord, goosebumps forming in reaction to an otherwise simple beginning.

This symphony, perhaps Bruckner’s most famous and successful orchestral work, is known for its lower brass parts, particularly the four Wagner tubas that he features prominently in the second movement. And in this performance, the orchestra did not disappoint. After a moving yet more restrained first movement, the lower brass upped the ante in their confident, commanding opening.

From there, the lower strings and the rest of the brass section began to match this intensity. By the end of the movement, the sound was absolutely breathtaking. Though my mind usually wanders a bit during most orchestral concerts, I found it impossible to pull my eyes from the ensemble. I was sitting next to a friend throughout the performance — despite having commented to each other a bit during the first movement about the orchestra’s performance, we were both too engaged from this point forward to interact at all.

The last two movements built to an incredible forte before reaching an even higher peak. The orchestra managed to maintain this forward momentum for nearly an hour, keeping the audience engaged even as the piece moved between various melodic ideas. At the end, the upper brass began to outcompete the lower brass, culminating in a final moment of exuberant orchestral harmony before the gradual fade towards the last chord.

By the end of the concert, the connection between the two pieces could not have been clearer. If anything, I was disappointed that I was not able to hear the London Philharmonia perform other types of orchestral music — they had more than made a compelling case for the addition of these 19th-century German composers in the repertoire. Salonen lead his orchestra through to impeccable performances. As he moves to the San Francisco Symphony, I am excited to see if he can push this similarly famous ensemble to new heights.