A Cool Head Prevails in Salonen's Beethoven and Mahler

By Truman C. Wang
Friday, February 5, 2016

 Esa-Pekka Salonen/Photo credit: L.A. Phil

Esa-Pekka Salonen/Photo credit: L.A. Phil

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15. MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D major. Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. Yefim Bronfman, pianist. Los Angeles Philharmoninc, January 29, 2016, Walt Disney Concert Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the beloved former Music Director of the L.A. Philharmonic (1992-2009), returned as a most welcome guest conductor to an auditorium filled to near capacity and garnered yelps of approval before even lifting his baton to conduct.  The program, consisting of one Classical work and one Romantic work, showed both the strength and weakness of Mr. Salonen as an interpretive artist.  In the years since his retirement from full-time conducting to devote more time to composing, his stature as a composer has grown steadily and currently he is Composer-in-Residence of the New York Philharmonic.  This puts him in a unique position when interpreting the works of other composers, bringing more depth and insight than other conductors who are not also composers themselves.  Also increasingly, his interpretive work has acquired a certain clinical and analytical quality that is the opposite of warmth and romanticism.  Mr. Salonen still leads exciting performances on the podium, but the old romantic varnish has been replaced by a deepening sense of modern cynicism. 

This issue became all too apparent in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major with pianist Yefim Bronfman.  Mr. Bronfman, who is on a mission this year to perform all five piano concertos of Beethoven, is a romantic at heart who played the notes with the purity of a string of perfectly-formed pearls, and dispatched the long arcing phrases with the panache of a fine opera singer.  Beethoven himself gave the best playing tip – “more legato! more feeling!”  And this is exactly what we got from Mr. Bronfman, who capped his stirring performance with the longest of the three cadenzas that Beethoven wrote for the concerto.  Things got a lot cooler in the orchestral department, where the composer-conductor painted the symphonic landscape with small, clear brush strokes rather than grand, romantic sweeps.  The resulting partnership was the orchestra and the soloist quickly going their separate ways, never to meet again until their jovial dance together in the final measures.

 Pianist Yefim Bronfman

Pianist Yefim Bronfman

The Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D Major was more successful artistically precisely because it’s a youthful work containing less emotional angst than Mahler’s later symphonies.   Mr. Salonen reveled in the richness and technical showmanship of the work, so much so that the many upward glissandi in the strings became too much of a good thing after a while.  The first movement that was based on a Wayfarer song had plenty of atmosphere, not of Mahler’s Alpine spring, but of Finland’s cool fjords.   The subsequent movements fared considerably better.  The Scherzo was humorously grotesque with a beguiling middle section for the horn, oboe and strings, and the famous bass-timpani ditty in the third movement Funeral March (based on a popular German school song) had more than a hint of cynicism to it.  In the long and sprawling final movement, Mr. Salonen managed to bring a sense of structure and logic to its many sections.  The violent thunderclap storm music was shocking in its ferocity and orchestral tour-de-force.  But this being a Salonen reading, one could clearly observed the individual raindrops pelting down from above with hi-def clarity and precision.  Exciting, yes;  Lovin’ it, not so much.  In the end, as always, the adoring fans won out the critics.  The final ovation was long and deafening.