Foreign Bodies (UK premiere)
Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Symphony No.6 in D minor
Symphony No.7 in C
Katarina Karneus (mezzo-soprano)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: 15 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The conductor who is also a composer is something of a suspicious breed. It would be a brave soul who claimed that figures such as Previn or Maazel (or Klemperer for that matter) are destined to be much more than footnotes in the music of their time. Amongst exponents of new music it often turns out that the conducting is subsidising the composing; over the past few years it has become abundantly clear that Esa-Pekka Salonen is a prime example of this.
A sporadic compositional output throughout the 80s and early 90s has turned into an increasingly prolific and confident body of work, certainly since a conducting sabbatical last year which produced a number of works of which Foreign Bodies is the latest. This highly enjoyable and satisfying Prom had Salonen’s friend and colleague, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, bringing the work to the UK only days after its premiere in Kiel.
As evidence of Salonen’s increasing reputation as a composer, Foreign Bodies was the third work of Salonen’s to be performed at the Proms in just four seasons. It demonstrated why this should be so, as it cleaved to the Proms paradigm for new music to be bold and user-friendly. It also showed that Salonen’s adoptive Los Angeles domicile had served to increase an anarchic playfulness which has been apparent in his music since the early Saxophone Concerto and which surely indicates the influence of his teacher, the late Franco Donatoni.
The 21-minute Foreign Bodies is cast in three movements played continuously, each suggesting a strong element of dance or physical movement. The opening passage espouses what is to come – an explosion of sound that issues into a texture of rapid figuration highly suggestive of Reich or Adams. Both of those composers loom large – Reich in how a passing detail is seized upon and made the subject of incremental growth until a pattern is completed; Adams in the joyous energy of the music. A straining episode for strings leads into a bossa nova-like dance. Huge climaxes come and go until the movement winds down in a gentle pulsing to reveal a Sibelian glacier deep underneath the West Coast surf.
The slower, shorter second movement catches the ear with a flute incantation floated above an extraordinary texture of cellos and basses, each with a solo line, some microtonally tuned. This music returns affectingly, almost unchanged, at the section’s end, after a central tutti, in the manner of Sibelius’s Tapiola. Californian sunshine clears Nordic mists as the third part begins in an acceleration toward a riotous burst of energy which, through peaks and troughs, finally releases into the work’s wildest passage; its apotheosis is a gigantic major triad with knobs on, underpinned by the mighty and majestic Royal Albert Hall organ. The sight of the orchestral keyboard player racing out of the hall to reappear in record time as the organist for the final bars might have fatally undermined a more sober piece; here it seemed to be the defining moment of Los Angeles wackiness.
Salonen the composer seems to have more or less shed the influence of the European ’avant-garde’, which was audible in his earlier pieces, in favour of a vibrantly expanded, tonal, harmonic and melodic language clothed in luminous colours for which the conduit is Salonen the conductor. It’s a style that makes for hugely agreeable listening and will win him many friends amongst non-specialist audiences. Equally, the textural quirkiness and unpredictability of the music should satisfy listeners who want more than just a good time. The performance under Saraste’s sympathetic and calmly authoritative direction was as committed as it needed to be to articulate Salonen’s dynamism and technicolour scoring. With an orchestra of real virtuoso standard – the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle, shall we say – one could imagine Foreign Bodies being even more of a blast; it is in fact archetypal Rattle material.
Another composer-conductor appeared in the first half of the concert. With echoes of Salonen’s pyrotechnics still whirling in my ears, it took a song or two from this selection of seven from Mahler’s ’Magic Horn’ collection to relocate from Big Sur by way of Lapland to the dark forests and babbling brooks of German Romanticism. Once there, however, there was much to savour. One marvelled again at how subtly Mahler manages to avoid the repetitions of setting strophic texts through variation technique and shifts of orchestration. Dietrich Henschel sang with admirable clarity and pleasing tone, while the natural and unforced singing of Katarina Karneus was well suited to the folk-like nature of the vocal line. The orchestral accompaniment was diaphanous and discreetly supportive until it came into its own in ’Reveille’.
The second half afforded a rare and deeply satisfying opportunity to hear Sibelius’s last two symphonies played back-to-back. The pellucid modality of No.6 was heard as being closely connected to, but also decisively resolved by, the organic might of the Seventh. In fact, it was good to be hearing No.6 at all, given its relatively rare appearances in the concert hall (tonight’s performance putting Proms performances into double figures, compared to 38 apiece for 2 and 5).
The supreme confidence with which the violins launched into the Sixth’s opening paragraph immediately spoke of an orchestra and conductor steeped in the indigenous tradition of performing this music. There was nothing remotely flashy about these renditions of either symphony, just sheer musicality and depth of thought and feeling. The many wonders of both works registered exactly as they should – the ’gathering points’ where the music seamlessly and imperceptibly shifts into new territory; the unexpected endings of No.6’s four movements, which seem to close on an inhalation rather than exhalation; No.6’s archaic cadences; No.7’s quiet majesty and the certainty of the trombone’s ritornello.
The concert seemed to me to reach its inverse climax in the gradual ebbing away at the end of the single-movement Seventh, which was played so movingly and with such understanding that the final great peroration had an overwhelming inevitability. My mind reverted to this season’s First Night – ’Though I speed not, I cannot miss’.
Encores from Sibelius (The Tempest) and Grieg (Peer Gynt) completed the concert.
- BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Monday, 20 August, at 2 o’clock
- Esa-Pekka Salonen was the subject of a Proms Composer Portrait on 13 August (click here to read the review)