The opening concert of the Philharmonia season under Esa-Pekka Salonen formed part of the orchestra’s Bittersweet Metropolis series, in essence an exploration of Weimar republic Berlin, though Salonen has broadened the frame of reference to include music by members of the Second Viennese School. The main works, written after the republic’s collapse, were Berg’s Violin Concerto and Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler, both of which confront ideas of continuity and renewal by turning back to traditions that Austro-German music took as its starting point: Bach in Berg’s case, medieval songs in Hindemith’s.
Mathis der Maler derives from the opera of the same name, which examines the artist’s responsibility to bear witness in dark times. Salonen’s performance had an angry beauty, the ethereal opening chords suggesting a deep serenity soon to be shattered. The final movement, depicting the Temptation of St Anthony, was fearsomely intense until the final chorale swept anguish away in an assertion of optimism and dignity.
Christian Tetzlaff, playing with unforced sincerity and wonderful sweetness of tone, was the soloist in the Berg. The surge of emotion at the start of the second movement was all the more shocking after the grace and restraint of what had gone before, and the closing section, as the violin line drifts upwards over a Bach chorale, was as profound as it was beautiful.
Bach was also the inspiration for three brief works that opened the concert, Hindemith’s Ragtime (Well Tempered) and Schoenberg’s orchestrations of two chorale preludes. Schoenberg’s lucidity contrasted with Hindemith’s raucous jazziness. The playing was terrific, the complex counterpoint finely negotiated and admirably clear.