The financial outlook may be restrictive, but at least the imagination has not been cramped. Last weekend saw the Southbank Centre’s two resident symphony orchestras – the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia – embarking fully on the 2011/12 season, and their programmes were anything but timid or conservative.
On Saturday, the LPO gave the Royal Festival Hall’s lighting system a good workout. Programme notes regularly tell us that Skryabin had visionary ideas about showing music as light and colour, but it is not often that anybody tries. For this performance of Prometheus, the composer’s “light keyboard” became a newly commissioned light show on the hall’s ceiling by Lucy Carter, not as dazzling as one imagines Skryabin had in mind but a decent attempt to deliver the impossible.
Having settled on Prometheus as the theme, the orchestra’s principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, also used extracts from Beethoven’s ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) and Liszt’s Prometheus symphonic poem. Neither is close to being its composer’s best music, but the quality of playing was high, as always under Jurowski.
Including a substantial new work by German composer Matthias Pintscher pushed the boundaries. His Mar’eh, a joint commission by the LPO, is a strangely persuasive violin concerto of wispy, insubstantial sounds that linger at the border of inaudibility. Julia Fischer was the exemplary soloist and the audience sat paralysed into silence in order to hear.
On Sunday, the Philharmonia Orchestra followed with its own adventurous offering. Brahms’s Violin Concerto is admittedly not a rarity, even played with the exhausting athleticism that it was here by Viktoria Mullova. But Sibelius’s epic Kullervo still is and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonia’s principal conductor, took the players on an exhilarating ride through its bloody and tragic myth. Monica Groop was the grave mezzo, Jukka Rasilainen the searing baritone, and the male voices of Orphei Drängar came from Sweden to add their tight-knit singing to the scorching playing from the orchestra. This was as ambitious a start to the season as any for five years or more.