Philharmonia/Salonen review – style but not enough substance for Weimar series opener

Royal Festival Hall, London
The first of the Philharmonia’s Bittersweet Metropolis events focused on Berg, Hindemith and Weill but felt like a banquet without a main course

Fourteen years – that’s how long the Weimar republic lasted, yet that period of feverish cross-pollination between “high” and “low” art left an imprint that belies its brevity. Bittersweet Metropolis, the Philharmonia’s new mini-series – Part 1 now, Part 2 in September – will touch on film and cabaret too, but its opening event was straightforwardly music-only. That’s unless you count the lighting scheme, which soaked the organ pipes on the back wall in washes of colour, from Valentine’s-card crimson to cool twilight blue – a low-key addition, but anything that introduces a sense of theatre to the standard concert-going experience has to be a good thing.

This selection of suites, brief works and extracts felt like a banquet without a main course, for all the brilliance of the Philharmonia players, tackling a difficult and unfamiliar programme, and the security of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting. The meatiest item was uneasily placed at the start: Berg’s Three Pieces from Wozzeck, characterfully played, with a tender introduction giving way to oompah tuba and squealing piccolo when the marching soldiers were depicted, and with a wrenching climax. Angela Denoke’s gleaming soprano soared above the full orchestra. It felt like a taster for the searing power of the opera proper.

Berg features strongly on the series programme – as does Hindemith, whose neo-classical Concerto for Orchestra followed in a 12-minute splurge of tricksy solos and fully flexed orchestral muscles. It was bracing, even if the performance lacked the last coat of varnish. The orchestra sounded more stylish in the Suite from Weill’s Threepenny Opera, with Jason Evans’s muted trumpet slouching impeccably through Mack the Knife; too bad each movement lasted only a few minutes.

• Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis season runs at the Southbank Centre, London, until 29 September.

Contributor

Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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