Towards Alba, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new horn concerto, was written for Richard Watkins, who gave its premiere with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of a programme that examined the role of the horn itself both as a solo instrument and as a member of the orchestra. Cast along traditional three-movement lines, the concerto effectively depicts contrasting images of dawn and sunrise, and its inspiration is in part literary.
The long central Aubade, with its elegiac solo writing and penumbral pedal points, derives from Philip Larkin’s poem of the same name, in which the returning light also brings with it a bitter awareness of mortality. The outer movements are brief and tautly structured. The first, simply called Alba, is an assertive call to action, while the finale, based on Donne’s The Sun Rising, is all closely woven counterpoint and snappy syncopations. It’s a fine vehicle for Watkins, who played it with great warmth of tone, lyrical refinement and understated virtuosity. Salonen and the Philharmonia, meanwhile, made much of Turnage’s heady, if occasionally dense textures.
Towards Alba sharply contrasts with the nocturnal mood of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, one of its three companion pieces here. Watkins was joined by Allan Clayton for a performance of quiet intensity, ravishingly played and sung.
The evening opened with Weber’s Freischütz Overture, strikingly done, the orchestral sound lean and clear, the horn quartet carefully balanced and honed, the final peroration genuinely thrilling. Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, meanwhile, brought the concert to its close – the best performance of the work I’ve heard in ages, full of biting wit and deep humanity, and quite marvellously played.