London’s prolifically sprawling concert life always seems to be most satisfying when it comes into focus through an intelligently themed series. More often than not in recent years, the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen have supplied that better than anyone else, and their newly launched Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals is no exception. Brilliantly contexualised by the series consultant Jonathan Cross, this celebration of Stravinsky comes backed up with a richly documented programme book. The whole enterprise is also a fine tribute to the vision of the Philharmonia’s long-standing managing director, David Whelton, who retires this summer.
Entitled «Tales», this concert turned the spotlight on the compact, one-off works Stravinsky wrote for the lyric stage during the early years of his exile from Russia roughly a century ago — mostly composed in Switzerland, all premiered in Paris. Nostalgia certainly haunts Renard, a burlesque based on children’s rhymes and evoking the rough side of the farmyard.
Renard’s absurdist, pantomimic aspect was ideally brought to life in Irina Brown’s staging; in costumes by Louis Price and choreography by Quinny Sacks, the four singers and four dancers seemed to step out of a constructivist picture, complete with hammer and sickle. The singers, from St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, gave full weight to their lines. Yet even in a score including the dusky cimbalom, the music seldom sounds quite so expressive as it did here: Salonen shaped a taut yet loving performance.