Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, BWV769
Naive and Sentimental Music
Marianne Crébassa (mezzo-soprano)
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 2 August, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
In addition to the nod to the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation (explored further in the late-night concert immediately after) and John Adams’s seventieth birthday, this Prom marked the (unstated) twenty-fifth appearance of Esa-Pekka Salonen at this festival. His first appearance, in 1985, was with the Philharmonia and it is a lasting testament to their wonderful partnership that they remain even more closely associated today. Together they produced the most electrically charged Prom so far this season, which elicited the most overwhelming audience response – listeners on BBC Radio 3 would be surprised to hear, no doubt, that the Royal Albert Hall wasn’t packed (with large swathes of the Rausing Circle – that’s the Balcony to you and me – surprisingly empty). For the record the Philharmonia has made ninety-six appearances at the Proms, the first fifty-five years ago this month, on 17 August 1962.
There were three main factors to such a rousing (if not Rausing) success: wonderfully intelligent programming; the Proms debut of a star mezzo; and a world-beating collaboration between orchestra and conductor. This one will live long in the memory.
At first glance the platform layout looked perfectly normal for the Stravinsky, but in reality in the violins’ and cellos’ seats were the Philharmonia Voices. Whether specified in the score, this plan afforded a fascinating integration of vocal and instrumental timbres in Stravinsky’s inventive recreation of Bach’s organ variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’, in which clarinets are as absent as violins and cellos, and Bach’s inventions are gilded occasionally with some typical late-Stravinsky interventions. The chorus sing the refrain in the middle three of the variations, before inverting it at the end of the fifth and final section, Stravinsky perfectly judging a musical cohabitation across a couple of centuries that he had composed for St Mark’s Venice fifty-one years ago. Salonen allowed every instrument its due in a reading of startling clarity, particularly the harp.
Farewell Voices, and welcome just one – that of Marianne Crébassa with a performance that melted thousands of hearts at the very first word: “Asie”. Of Salonen has many times proved his worth in French music and, again, clarity was to the fore from all departments of the much enlarged (but sparingly used) orchestra. Crébassa’s rich voice, matching her ivory-silk, full-length ball gown, is the sort that draws you in effortlessly and she characterised ( nom de plume) Tristan Klingsor’s opening travelogue as a thrilling adventure, with exquisite diction. Her duet with Samuel Coles’s mellifluous flute in the second song led to a bittersweet sadness to the indifferent youth of the final setting – a rapturous account of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, during which the stillness of the audience was indicative testament.
Following the interval, with enlarged orchestra again – guitar and panoply of percussion included – came John Adams’s symphony-in-all-but-name Naïve and Sentimental Music. The composer introduced it to the Proms in 2001, which was two years after Salonen (its commissioner and dedicatee) had conducted the premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Salonen has a very special association with the piece and, although I think this is the first time he’s conducted Adams with the Philharmonia (at least in my ken), this performance was as thrilling as it had been scrupulously prepared. And the more I hear it, the more engaged I become, even if the title is, by Schiller’s terms (from whom it comes) a little bit … sentimental.
The three-movement span is one used by Adams in Harmonielehre (to be heard later in this Proms season). The opening flute melody seems to never end as it gets taken up by the orchestra and the oscillating accompanying rhythm rises to three climaxes in the longest movement which bears the eponymous title. The slow edifice of the central movement – a gloss on Busoni’s Berceuse elégiaque – opens like Schubert with a string arpeggiated figure over which the guitar makes its mark, eerily accompanied by three percussionists bowing vibraphones: Adams was bowled over by Salonen and his LA forces in rehearsal for Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and there is a Brucknerian sense of space here, rising to a feverish climax before ebbing away.
The Finale is a ten-minute crescendo with a frenetic intertwining of rhythmic pulses that get ever more excitable until they seem to implode, leaving only a residue of a peal of horns that ricocheted off the Hall’s ceiling ‘mushrooms’. The thunderous acclamation was all the more effective for the momentary stunned silence as the reverberations of the horns died away; on a return Salonen held the score high to a resounding cheer. He may have a way to go to catch Haitink’s eighty-nine Proms appearances, but let’s hope he and the Philharmonia return with John Adams’s music as he attempts to do so.