Prom 39: 19th August 2001 – CBSO

Photograph of Sakari Oramo

Cello Concerto in B minor
George Benjamin
Sudden Time
Symphony No.5 in E flat

Alban Gerhardt (cello)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For his third Prom at the helm of the CBSO, Sakari Oramo directed a programme that worked better ’in the flesh’ than on paper. Maybe a curtain-raiser before the Dvorák would not have come amiss but, at a shade under 40 minutes, this occupied the first half satisfyingly enough.

Heinrich Schiff’s eleventh-hour indisposition enabled the young Alban Gerhardt to return to the Proms after his debut last year (he is due to appear again in Prom 66 and in the final lunchtime chamber recital on 10 September). It is difficult at this stage to define his performing style, though the richness of his lower register and frequent, though generally subtle use of vibrato place him more in the Ma camp than the Schiff. The opening ’Allegro’ suggested that he and Oramo had – understandably – not fully agreed on an interpretational strategy. The generous rubato on his first entry came as a surprise after the incisive opening tutti, the two approaches never quite being accommodated thereafter. Gerhardt hedged his bets slightly in the thrilling octave ascent going into the reprise, but impressed with a seriousness of intent that never threatened to become mawkish.

The second movement brought greater unity of purpose, with Oramo effectively marshalling his forces – whether in the minor-key outburst that launches the elegiac central section or the cadenza-like passage where the soloist musingly engages with single woodwind. The robust gait of the finale’s rondo theme informed its more pensive episodes, while the extended coda made the thematic connection with the work’s opening more pointedly than usual. Less nostalgic too, though with an expressive yearning to remind one that Mahler also was a Czech composer by birth. Gerhardt meanwhile, if he can avoid developing hazardous mannerisms, will be a cellist to follow.

Having made a speciality of reviving twentieth-century British works, Oramo here revived one from the last decade. George Benjamin’s Sudden Time had several performances in London soon after its premiere in 1993, all conducted by the composer, so it was good to hear an alternative approach. This investigation into the qualities of experiencing “in dreamtime, in between and in real time,” to quote the composer, packs a great deal of harmonic layering and varied pulsation into its 14 minutes, bringing Benjamin’s preoccupation with complex, translucent textures to a likely culmination. If it lacks the expressive concreteness of At First Light or Three Inventions, Sudden Time emerged here as a fully unified conception, Oramo drawing out a consistency of melodic line even in the most diversely-scored passages, with the closing viola solo – rapturously played by Christopher Yates – seeming an inevitable outcome of the work’s multifarious progress.

Some years ago, Simon Rattle said in an interview that his successor at the CBSO would have a hard time unpicking his interpretation of Sibelius Five. Whether consciously or not, Oramo set out to do just this, with an impulsive initial tempo for the opening movement whose ’tempo moderato’ had little of the ’molto’ qualification. This gave a feeling of permanent transition, with the transformed exposition heightening the forward motion, and the central bassoon solo pensive rather than brooding. Come the eloquent transition into the ’Allegro moderato’, however, and Oramo eschewed even a fractional holding back, the music moving forward with little sense of release, so lessening the launch of the final ’Piu presto’ into an exhilarating new momentum.

The second movement was almost perfectly judged, an elusive intermezzo with enough underlying sense of discord to offset its mood of sanguinity. The finale opened energetically, though failed to broaden sufficiently in the majestic second theme, horns dominating the texture where they should be motivating it. Oramo perhaps undersold its ’largamente’ reprise, though the final peroration was powerfully wrought, the closing chords affirmative in all senses.

Overall, a fine, potentially great interpretation in the making. The encore, ’Caliban’s Song’ from Sibelius’s incidental music to The Tempest, came as an admirable foil – its bizarre humour indicative of a side of Sibelius that will have surprised those who know only his symphonies and tone poems. Worth noting also that, throughout the evening, Oramo obtained playing of a standard which reinforced the CBSO’s world-class credentials.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Wednesday, 22 August, at 2 o’clock

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