Prom 24: Love, the Magician

La boda de Luis Alonso – Intermedio
Rodrigo arr. Davis & Evans
Concierto de Aranjuez – Adagio
The Little Death Machine [world premiere]
Falla arr. Davis & Evans
El Amor brujo – Will-o’-the-wisp
El Amor brujo (complete)

Ginesa Ortega (singer)

John Harle (saxophones)

John Lubbock

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 6 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This programme looked curious on paper, and so it proved in performance.

Giménez’s La boda de Luis Alonso is a Zarzuela – a typical Spanish kind of music drama, rather in the manner of an operetta. The interlude performed here is full of colour, verve and zest, rather reminding this listener of the sparkling music Sullivan wrote for The Gondoliers some ten years or so before Giménez’s piece. OSJ (the new name for The Orchestra of St. John’s) played vigorously, but it became immediately apparent that the comparably small string section was going to have difficulty in projecting its lines, however attractively and elegantly the violins played in quieter passages. Wind and brass solos werecharacterful.

The main work of the evening was the first performance of John Harle’s The Little Death Machine, a concerto for soprano and sopranino saxophones and chamber orchestra with two keyboard/sampler players. I suppose the term ’eclectic’ is a well-worn one to describe much contemporary music, but it is the most apt description for this work. Driving rhythms (Stravinsky and minimalist-like in turn), 12-tone melodies and sampled electronics all played their part in this display piece for the soloist. Harle has certainly provided himself with an impressive ’calling-card’ as both soloist and composer – it is difficult to think of anyone else who could play such obviously fiendishly difficult music – and yet the constant sound of high-pitched wailing saxophone-sound did pall after a while. It probably didn’t help that the three pieces involving solo saxophone were lumped together in the programme.

Harle’s concerto falls into distinct sections, each with its own characteristic – jagged melodies initially, later a smooth, rather schmaltzy section for strings with synthesiser, culminating in a veritable mechanistic riot which effectively evoked the mood of the title. The concerto was inspired by a sculpture in the Tate Modern – ’Little Death Machine (Castrated)’ by Jake and Dinos Chapman but Harle’s programme note explained that “the piece gradually became a vision of monstrous musico-mechanical mayhem” – and he undoubtedly succeeded in illustrating this.

This was a convincing performance (it clearly had been given the most rehearsal time) but the strings were virtually inaudible in tuttipassages. It would perhaps be impertinent to suggest that the most interesting sounds were those produced by the synthesiser/samplers, but these were fascinating and well-integrated into the score as a whole. I would like to hear the piece again, perhaps in a less generous acoustic.

The two Davis & Evans arrangements framed Harle’s Concerto, and perhaps lost impact as a result. I must be frank and say I didn’t care much for either of them. Not having heard the original versions for trumpet, the saxophone transcriptions by Joe Muccioili were well-played by Harle, but I can imagine that the trumpet would provide greater variety of timbre. The orchestra (winds, brass, string bass, harp and percussion) seemedrather unsure as to the ’style’ it ought to adopt, and there were some moments of sour intonation in the Rodrigo.

The Falla excerpt was perhaps more agreeable, although coming after the fireworks of the Harle concerto, a poised performance was not really possible; but Davis & Evans succeeded in turning Rodrigo’s melancholic and beautiful slow movement into something bluesy and – dare I say it? – rather sleazy.

Falla’s El Amor brujo was giving a trim, direct performance, with some very effective solo playing. I found the tempi on the whole to be a notch on the slow side – the ’Ritual Fire Dance’ definitely required a more inflammatory approach. From the programme note, I gather that Ginesa Ortega has performed this work several times and recorded it. I can only say that what may be authentic flamenco singing is most definitely not authentic Falla singing. The vocal line was distorted, rhythms and pitches inaccurate, and Ms Ortega clearly had difficulty projecting into the space of the RAH. I make no personal criticism of her. To my mind she was simply miscast.

A mixed bag, then, but worth catching for Harle’s concerto.

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