Prom 36: 17th August 2001

Violin Concerto in D
Concerto for Orchestra

Caroline Stein (soprano)
Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

London Voices
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

2001, in the ’Space Odyssey’ sense, is one of numerous semi-themes running through this year’s Proms, though Kubrick’s often visionary perspective on the future of humanity hardly accords with the self-satisfied consumerism of our present era.

The ideal opportunity, though, to revive one of Ligeti’s most ambitious and encompassing works. Completed in 1965, Requiem is far from a devotional, let alone liturgical offering. Drawing only on the initial stages of the text, its sombre intensity is redolent of mid-twentieth-century humanism, seeking salvation through future aspiration as much as acknowledgement of past failing.

After the dour, often barely perceptible ’Introitus’, the mesmeric 40-part heterophony of the ’Kyrie’ suggests a post-holocaust Spem in Alium, while the ’Day of Judgement’ sequence – alternating extremes of register, texture and gesture – conjures up a Breugelesque vision given voice by Ionesco. The ’Lacrimosa’ opens out the expression onto a plane of muted supplication, introducing a harmonic dimension that achieves a catharsis of musical means if not of emotional ends.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, having conducted two previous performances of this work in London (1989 and 1997), is well placed to extract the maximum range and impact from its uncompromising expression. In doing so he was aided by the committed London Voices and spectacular contributions from Caroline Stein and Charlotte Hellekant – as agile in the pyrotechnics of the ’Dies irae’ as they were consoling in the other-worldly strains of the ’Lacrimosa’. Those who came to hear the work on account of its filmic association must surely have been bowled over by its impact ’in the flesh’.

After the interval, two mid-century classics. Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto emulates the baroque archetype in scale rather than expression, the soloist engaging the modest orchestral forces in an interplay which throws up a deft humour and, in the complementary central ’Arias’, not a little pathos. Thomas Zehetmair has given some memorable performances at the Proms. If the present account took most of the opening ’Toccata’ to find its way – a premature trombone entry one of several mishaps – it developed into a trenchant and incisive reading; the synthesis of many aspects from Stravinsky’s early neo-classicism evident with the pithy The Soldier’s Tale reference in the coda of the ’Capriccio’.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra has fared well at the Proms, with 20 performances over 52 years, and this account must surely rank among the best of them. Salonen appreciates the work’s formal coherence, not ’symphonic’ in any overt sense, but an expressive broadening of the arch-form Bartók had been employing for some 38 years. If the thematic contrasts of the opening movement were a shade abrupt, what followed felt unobtrusively right, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra making the most of what is after all a chance for individual players and sections to shine. The authentic and virtuosic facets of Bartók’s conception were drawn into single, unwavering accord.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Tuesday, 21 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)

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