Monday 30 September 2013

Berlioz in Basingstoke

28 September, 2013 – The Anvil, Basingstoke

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Pic by Clive Barda
Esa Pekka Salonen
The bustle of imperial Vienna, circa 1814, might seem a long way from modern-day Basingstoke, but it was a forceful slice of that city’s musical heritage that opened the Anvil’s 2013-14 International Concert Series. The Philharmonia Orchestra and their distinguished music director, Finish conductor and composer Esa Pekka Salonen, sailed through Beethoven’s beefy Namensfeier overture, a piece originally intended to sell the composer’s wares to the great and good of Europe. Monarchs, aristocrats and diplomats descended on the Austrian capital at the behest of the country’s Emperor, where they hoped to fix the continent-wide mess left by one Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven – ever the shrewd businessman – saw a golden opportunity to appeal to potential patrons, but in the end, he couldn’t finish this rousing orchestral piece in time, substituting some little known and little regarded crowd-pleasers in its place.  In truth, Namensfeier (‘feast day’ or ‘name day’) isn't one of Beethoven’s best, but orchestra and conductor made sure it packed a considerable punch.

Beside Beethoven’s stormy vision of Romanticism in music, Robert Schumann’s can seem Romanticism’s sensitive and delicate face. Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, though, injected sparkle into Schumann’s sober Piano Concerto of 1845, pulling it away from the straight and narrow with ease. This is music that can sound a little prim; not so for Anderszewski, in whose hands Schumann’s understated piano writing ebbed and flowed. His compelling way with it was even enough to distract from the mistakes he scattered through the last movement, though a few of his extreme manipulations of tempo must have had the collective hearts of his conductor and orchestra missing a beat or two.

Whatever fleeting waywardness Anderszewski might have shown, though, was no match for the musical madness of Hector Berlioz, the wildly inventive French composer whose music was so radical that it had to wait a century before being properly appreciated. His Symphonie Fantastique is one great hallucinogenic musical trip – it imagines its own lovelorn composer’s attempted opium overdose and subsequent visions of masked balls, witches and executions. It also happens to be one of classical music’s most brilliant showpieces, giving the musicians of the Philharmonia ample chance to dazzle with their abilities. Their wind players brought tremendous elegance to Berlioz’s unique writing; their brass players drove his excesses home with terrific commitment. At the helm, Salonen moulded the hour-long Symphonie into a helter skelter of musical adventure, all luscious strings and thumping percussion. It utterly baffled its first audience in 1830; this one brought the house down.