Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy; Ravel: Scheherazade; Stravinsky: Rite of Spring

O'Connor, Philharmonia/Salonen

Usher Hall, 26 August 2011 4 stars

Kelley O'ConnorPair Stravinsky with Bartok, as the Concertgebouw did last year, and the debate can get fierce. Pair him with Scriabin, as the Philharmonia did tonight, and the exchange is intense in an altogether more collegiate way.

There is significant common ground between the Poem and the Rite. An overweening ambition might be the first parallel, with Stravinsky triumphantly bringing it off where Scriabin, without exactly coming up short, nevertheless earns Constant Lambert's jibe: 'angry waves beating at the shores of our consciousness'. From such commentary the Poem has earned a legendary status at the extreme of late-romantic gigantism: a work seldom heard but often talked about. (Perhaps 'often' is an exaggeration, but Scriabin's peri-compositional ideas – his mysticism, his interest in synaesthesia – contribute to discussions of the broader aesthetic climate of the time.)

The two men share a debt to Rimsky-Korsakoff. Scriabin famously demands a huge orchestra for the Poem – larger even than Stravinsky's – and the Poem's opening measures, in the shapes of phrase and harmonic colour, put one in mind immediately of that shared inheritance. Intriguingly, though, the way Scriabin deploys his resources brings in thoughts of Bruckner, its thick layers of timbre resembling an organ while the harmonic rhythm, for long periods, lumbers with a compulsive steadfastness that seems to contradict the headlong rush towards ecstasy. Nevertheless, by the concluding bars, the sheer frenzied force of the massive chords, underwritten by the Usher Hall's splendid organ at full throat, cannot help but overwhelm the audience.

For Ravel's early score, Scheherazade, the orchestral means are trimmed; of the three songs, the second and third are notably light and modest in the resources they demand. The work dates from just after the premiere of Debussy's Pelleas, and a little before the two men's subsequent falling out. Ravel having remarked that he would re-orchestrate Pelleas, one can think of the young man experiencing this composition as an exploration of the orchestral technique that blossomed so majestically. As yet, while the ear for colour, sonority and texture are abundantly present, there is a certain stiltedness in the phrasing, more Duparc than Debussy.

In the role of fin-de-siecle Scheherazade, Kelley O’Connor brings a stunningly beautiful presence: tall, lithe and pencil-slim, with an appealing voice, what one might call an Alice voice, neither rich nor thin, but somewhere just right in between. It matched Ravel's diaphanous score admirably, though I wonder whether it has the weight to fill the hall in front of a more boisterous score.

Few scores, of course, are as boisterous as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Whatever one might feel about his oeuvre as a whole, without doubt the Rite's reputation as a scintillating masterpiece assures its warm welcome whenever it appears in the concert hall. However much one might listen or study at leisure, the live experience always rewards with new perspectives and previously unnoticed details. Tonight, for instance, the proximity of the horn section drew attention to some of the deeper colours that maybe blend with the percussion on other occasions.

Fortunately, a slack and drifting opening, marred by momentum-sapping allargandos, gave way to a performance that soon built intensity. By a markedly slow and austere 'Rondes printanieres', Salonen and his orchestra were achieving a tone that one could almost describe as earnestly devout, were it not for the coiled-spring effect that propelled us into a correspondingly rapid 'Jeux des Cités Rivales', functioning as a structural anacrusis-accent.

The Philharmonia were notably on far better form than during their previous Festival appearance in 2009. Immediately and throughout the concert they were taut, alert and responsive to Salonen's direction, delivering for him, as the Rite reached its climax, a performance of tremendous and compelling ferocity. The audience, which is becoming notably Prom-like this year, responded with rousing cheers as each section of the orchestra took its bow at the end.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Kelley O'Connor

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