Prom 42: Susanna Mälkki conducts Prokofiev, Neuwirth & Bartók

Composer Portrait
Olga Neuwirth
… ad auras … in memoriam H
Marsyas II
Musicians from the Royal Academy of Music: Cassandra Hamilton & Yuen Minn Majoe (violins), Richard Waters (viola), Pei-Jee Ng (cello), Thomas Hancox (flute), Daniel Lebhardt (piano) & James Crook (drum)
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 42
Romeo and Juliet – Suite No.1, Op.64a
Olga Neuwirth
Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory [UK premiere]
Concerto for Orchestra

Lawrence Power (viola)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki

Reviewed by: Hannah Sander

Reviewed: 13 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Susanna Mälkki. ©Tanja AholaThe Philharmonia Orchestra often dances on the surface of a piece, favouring crisp textures to the rich cream of a Germanic group. Susanna Mälkki employed this to lovely effect in this Prom, the orchestra finding a palette of snowy blues and whites, breathing freshness into Prokofiev’s too-well-known Romeo and Juliet ballet score. Such lightness of touch was transformative in the First of the three suites that Prokofiev made. Mälkki’s Verona was quite definitely Russian, a bright, white land of snowdrops rather than a searing Italian scene. The prettiness of the music was emphasised throughout and, although the performance lacked the emotional intensity which the narrative demands, it was charmingly balletic.

Lawrence PowerThe fairy-light sounds of the Philharmonia were extremely well-suited to Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Song… an Amphigory. An amphigory is a “nonsensical burlesque composition”, although this is a burlesque that takes itself very seriously: not until the final movement were wit and rambunctious energy allowed to come out and play. Neuwirth, who studied under Luigi Nono and appeared as composer-in-residence at the Lucerne Festival alongside Boulez, creates vast tapestries in her music, weaving together references to the Viennese masters of the nineteenth-century with electro-acoustic sounds, film, literature and art. Written in 2009, Remnants of Songs takes its name from a work by Ulrich Bauer examining the range in emotions of modern art, from despair to playfulness. Neuwirth’s five-movement ‘viola concerto’ explores these characters in turn, ending with a finale that layers jaunty tunes over a shifting, uneasy orchestral bed. At times Neuwirth’s singing viola stands alone against a backdrop of fizzing effects: the sea-spray of the central movement – ‘Im Meer versank’ was delightful. The piece starts with arpeggios of harmonics, a very unusual passage of stratospheric writing in the viola’s range, deftly performed by Lawrence Power. There is some beautiful orchestration, including a passage for harmonicas, harps and an array of percussion.

Colin Anderson writes… At the pre-Prom Portrait recital, Olga Neuwirth discussed her work with Andrew McGregor. He asked the Graz-born composer how she felt returning to her earlier music: “strange in a lost country”, replied Neuwirth. Her use of “extended techniques” (McGregor) was explored as was the influence made upon her by IRCAM in Paris. In 1999 Neuwirth was in Venice when an “important friend died early” and she was unable to say farewell: … ad auras … in memoriam H is her tribute to the friend unidentified beyond the initial. It is scored for two violins (one de-tuned) and a wooden drum (measuring a deliberately precise 43cm x 43cm). The silence that Venice yields was important to Neuwirth while she wrote. Whether fragile, ethereal or harshly angular – the latter quality intensified by the drum – the two violins never quite harmonise and there are many effects; arguably too many for what seems a long 12 minutes. During the conversation Neuwirth admitted to being “haunted and obsessed by memory” and that her music is a labyrinth and full of illusions. Marsyas II (2005) is an “orchestration” of Marsyas I (for piano), a dramatic telling of an instrument-playing competition between Marsyas and Apollo, which the former wins and duly signs his own death warrant. Using flute, viola and cello (both de-tuned, one up, one down) and piano, Marsyas II brings cool promise and intense theatrics. Thomas Hancox offered some beguiling flute-playing (equalled by his RAM colleagues and those who had played earlier) to create a vivid and volatile narrative of rivalry, and a final watery grave for Marsyas; 15 superb minutes of music and performance.

Hannah Sander continues… Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra completed the Prom. There was a pleasing musical consistency between all three works given they are driven by relentless ostinatos and percussive chords, and there are even similarities between their melodic gestures. Heard after Neuwirth’s piece, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra sounded wonderfully, juicily nineteenth-century, with its carefully planned structure and romantic folk-melodies. Mälkki specialises in contemporary music. Through the use of very fast vibrato in the strings and extraordinary restraint from the percussion, she brought to this performance the whispering qualities of current North European composition. What perhaps lacked in contrasts of warmth and emotional colour was compensated for in shimmering beauty.

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