It is an uncomfortable truth, not universally acknowledged, that Esa-Pekka Salonen could have contributed far more at the helm of the BBC Symphony than he will ever do at the Philharmonia, which he joins next year as principal conductor. His glamour, contemporary profile and elixir of youth, matched now to considerable experience, would have put the BBC’s flagship orchestra back where it belongs – at the intersection between cutting-edge and market-place. Judging by their brilliantly alert responses and tonal opulence in this Prom, the musicians are smitten, and they also brought out the best in him.
But there is another uncomfortable truth – that the Finnish conductor-composer is not the avant-gardiste he was, an impression confirmed on this occasion by the European premiere of his Piano Concerto. All that time on the edges of Hollywood (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) has infected him. Like too many erstwhile modernists, Salonen has gone soft at the centre.
The Piano Concerto – at more than half an hour his largest work to date – is an example of how to sound beautiful in music. Nothing wrong with that, but its idiom is entirely backward-looking. The week-by-week contact that Salonen the globetrotting conductor has had with Ravel, Rakhmaninov and John Adams has infected Salonen the aspiring composer. He has not only mastered their technical skills – how to create transparency of texture, how to sound lush, how to mutate rhythms across a huge orchestra. He has also blatantly adopted their idioms. Everything here is an hommage, from the opening echo of French baroque dance to the throbbing smoochiness of teeming tutti and the lyrical-languid timbre of the tunes. Salonen extracts the best from his creative recipe book, but all the seasoning is in the orchestra: apart from a cadenza stranded at the start of the middle movement, the piano is a mere bit-player in the overall texture.
Yefim Bronfman did his best to make the solo part large and virtuosic, and it was not his fault that, in his flirtations with timpani, trumpet, viola and flute, the orchestra stole the show.