Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

A big perk of playing the organ is that it offers the oppotunity to be unashamedly, unrestrainedly loud. So did Kaija Saariaho’s new work leave organist Olivier Latry feeling hard done by? First heard in Montreal last month, Maan varjot (“Earth’s Shadows”), an 18-minute composition for organ and orchestra, is pointedly not an organ concerto. It is, as Saariaho herself states in a programme note, a piece with a prominent solo part, “in which two strong but civilised personalities can coexist without having to fight too much for a place in the sun”. Civilised indeed, its UK premiere extracted the meekest of purrs from the Royal Festival Hall’s colossal, recently restored organ.

But then, perhaps that’s to be expected of the Finnish composer, known for her dreamlike, delicate sound-world that combines well-established techniques to unique effect. Dedicated to the memory of the French composer Henri Dutilleux, Maan varjot is a sophisticated example of Saariaho’s work; its shimmering textures and gliding harmonies seem to come from a galaxy far beyond our own, evoking a reel of cinematic images.

For large sections, we could be at the bottom of an ocean, in a world of rippling, mysterious shapes and shadows. Then we come up for air to hear what sounds like parts of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony put through a blender. Only at this point does the organ let out a real roar, a moment savoured by Latry. For the most part, however, he proved himself well capable of civilised coexistence, as did the Philharmonia Orchestra, sensitively guided by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The bulk of the concert was devoted to older, more familiar Finnish repertoire. The Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili gave us a soft-focus rendition of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, all its sharp edges sanded down and polished to perfection, generating a warmth that suited the intimacy of the middle movement though less so the bleakness in the two outer sections.

The orchestra, however, told a slightly different story. There was a primal force to its interpretation that came to the fore in the programme’s final offering, Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony. Outstanding brass solos and edge-of-seat string playing made this a memorable performance, releasing all the energy pent up during the Saariaho. Meanwhile Salonen, ever the showman, grabbed the opportunity for some vigorous headbanging on the podium.

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