Prom 4: Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen & Pekka Kuusisto

Andrea Tarrodi

Birds of Paradise II
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 1 in C, Op.21
Antonio Vivaldi
The Four Seasons, Op.8 Nos.1-4 (with improvisation between movements)*

Ale Carr (cittern)
The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Pekka Kuusisto (violin/conductor)


Reviewed by: Ates Orga

Reviewed: 16 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

“I consider myself a musician.” Pekka Kuusisto can be guaranteed to bring a different air to anything he offers, be it playing or conducting, encore or legend. One can never quite be sure what he’s going to do or what might happen next. Stocky, mobile, bespectacled, he’s an adventurer, at his most searingly personal taking on sea cliffs and mountain ravines at the winter solstice, buffeted by serpentine winds of unpredictable current and strength, confrontational one moment, appeasing the next … salmon and vodka on the table. During a concert, he pondered in one of his Philharmonia videos, when you’re “at peace with yourself and with the situation, it’s possible sometimes to make decisions that kind of wouldn’t come to you in a rehearsal, or when you’re just studying the score. Something happens, the spirit moves you, and suddenly something feels like a grand idea. Sometimes it really clicks and you get everyone on board with the idea before it even happens … [an involuntary] gesture, or a body movement, [can] cause everyone to understand that something is about to happen. And, you know, the more you know the people you play with the further you can take the situation. If you listen the great jazz groups or great traditional music groups that have played together for decades, you hear it instantly. To just kind of be able to decide on the frame and kind of scope, the scale of what you’re doing. Are you working on tiny details or are you painting entire landscapes with a massive big brush?”

Andrea Tarrodi’s Birds of Paradise II (2013 orchestral version from the 2008 string original) opened the evening. Tarrodi, born in Stockholm in 1981 (her father is Christian Lindberg), is no stranger to the Proms. Sakari Oramo gave the UK premiere of her Liguria in 2017, and Dalia Stasevska introduced Solus, a BBC Last Night commission, in 2020. “I have synaesthesia so I approach music from a visual perspective,” she says. “Different notes and chords have different colours. When I was young, I was initially torn between painting and composing, and I still approach music through an artistic lens. I do sketches and drawings of the shape of the music before I write it and then always do a painting or illustration on the scores when I complete them.” Birds of Paradise was inspired by one of David Attenborough’s 2006 Planet Earth films for the BBC. The “northern coast of New Guinea,” depicted Darwin’s younger contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, “is exposed to the full swell of the Pacific Ocean, and is rugged and harbourless. The country is all rocky and mountainous, covered everywhere with dense forests, offering in its swamps and precipices and serrated ridges an almost impassable barrier to the unknown interior … [Here are to be] found these wonderful [treasures] of Nature, the [Raggiana] Birds of Paradise, whose exquisite beauty of form and colour and strange developments of plumage [excite] wonder and admiration” (The Malay Archipelago, 1869). A tripartite cinematic mood-and-atmosphere cameo (of an increasingly met Scandinavian type, one’s tempted to generalise) that pictured less than the real thing but didn’t outstay its eight-minute welcome. “A wonderfully Swedish deadpan humour,” Kuusisto fancies. “During the final section, I can easily imagine I’m standing on the waterfront in Stockholm, ice cream in hand, being attacked by seagulls!” Tarrodi in the stalls relished the unfolding.

Elemental force characterises Kuusisto’s Beethoven. Video hunters will need no reminding of a violin-led, visually charged, people involved 2020 Seventh Symphony with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (of which he’s been artistic director since 2021) – volcanic narrative, period responsive, glowing with the Logi fire, melody and motif at the service of key, harmony, rhythm and structure ( His view of the First Symphony – short baton, antiphonal violins, rattlingly hard-sticked drums – was lithe if occasionally brusque (the Minuet Trio for example). As for the (double-length) finale introduction – a sung call-and-response from an informed orchestra but unsuspecting audience (rock-show engagement, quick-flowing repartee being all part of the evening)  … that indulgence, contrasting his Nordic noir encore at the end of the programme (one of Nico Muhly’s Finnish arrangements),was a tensionless Pekka-ism which fell flat, no matter how absorbing the intonation, alert the dynamics, or enthusiastic the packed-out auditorium.

Printed in Amsterdam in 1725, first recorded commercially by Molinari (Rome 1942), famously by I Solisti di Zagreb (Vienna 1957), Vivaldi’s generous, infinitely fertile Four Seasons lends itself to any manner of interpretations and arrangements. From linking passages descended loosely from the nineteenth-century’s ‘preluding’ style, to independent interpolations between or across movements, to Gabriela Montero improvisation, to post-minimalist Max Richter metamorphosis (Recomposed, Prom 68, September 6), to  thrash metallisation. Remember Nigel Kennedy’s 2013 Prom with the Palestine Strings and Orchestra of Life? Simone Candotto’s algorhythmic ‘climate change’ For Seasons construction in collaboration with Berlin’s Kling Klang Klong studio, premiered by Roland Greutter and Alan Gilbert at the Elbphilharmonie in 2019? Coincidentally, a ‘music only’ version of Anna Meredith’s Anno (2016) for strings, surround electronics, and surround visuals – “Italian baroque meets techno” – closed the Cheltenham Festival just twenty-four hours before this Prom.

Mixing in Swedish tunes with fragments including some ‘Scottish’ Beethoven, Kuusisto’s quasi “reframing” of the score, playing with and off his friend the Swedish folklorist and self-taught cittern master Ale Carr – melodist, continuo – isn’t new to London. They did the cycle together with the Philharmonia in November 2021. “In something like Four Seasons,” he says, “everyone in the orchestra will know how it goes. So that’s a benefit. In some situations [though] it can be a bit of a curse as well, because if you’ve played it a thousand times, it might be more difficult to look at it with fresh ears … [But with Ale, with friends in the ensemble, a wink here and there] there’s going to be a lot of giving and taking of ideas. I think there might be some things that may seem a little bit criminal at first to us … But I suppose it’s just about seeing, you know, the big picture of the performance and deciding what fits it and what doesn’t … Not agreeing, not sort of designing the performance too much, just designing the language of the performance and then stretching it as much as it feels like it needs to be stretched.” Locating his 55-minute concept, he thinks of the “Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and how the rotating modern works of art give a slightly different resonance to the entire square”.

Unforeseen incidents aside – some humorous, others not (disruptive applauding between movements, never quite stemmed) – the performance showcased Kuusisto’s mercurial intellect and bravura. No challenge, no risk, was beyond him, with room to spare. The old phrases had verve and bounce, the programmatic moments blazed, stabbed and froze, photo-shopped into new dimensions. How magnificent must Vivaldi have been as a virtuoso crossed my mind, not for the first time, what astonishingly good players must have been his Venetian orphans and girls at the Ospedale della Pietà. Tall, in black leathers, Ale Carr swayed and danced, here crouching like a lynx in the snow, there sniffing the air wolf-like, now a caribou standing proud above the plain. Body language, eye contact (piercingly, wonderingly, joyously from Pekka, admiringly from Ale), shared breath, was everything. From desolate whispers to explosive tuttis, thrillingly unanimous in crescendosdiminuendos and tempo swings, spot-on in the segues, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, unsurprisingly, rose supremely to the occasion, Daniel Sepec, Marta Spārniņa and Anna-Lena Perenthaler, concertmaster and leaders respectively of the second violins and cellos, taking deserved curtain calls: their soloistic passion and commitment was visceral.

On the night the vaulting spaces of the Royal Albert Hall occasionally seemed too big (and sound absorbing) for the event – I’d have preferred more upfront intimacy, reduced forces even (four basses seeming a touch bottom heavy). This hasn’t proved the case with the inventively directed, aurally better focussed televised broadcast I’ve watched since, notwithstanding Ale needing still more amplification ( The interleaved images of bird and habitat in Tarrodi’s piece particularly please the eye, while the camera work in Vivaldi’s closing ‘Casanova’ Allegro from Autumn, ‘The Hunters set out at Dawn’, along with its preceding folk duet, catches the spirit of musicians high on art, feeling and affekt.

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