Prom 5: Also sprach Zarathustra … Laterna magica

Composer Portrait
Kaija Saariaho
Musicians from London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble: Liz Lamberton (violin), Rebecca Herman (cello), Sam Wilson (percussion) & Leanne Cody (piano)
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 5
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Four Last Songs
Laterna magica [UK premiere]
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 July, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAlso sprach Zarathustra is a great way to start a concert, here known as Prom 5. The organ pedal, bass drum, high trumpets and timpani salvos promise much. It’s almost a film score! The confident and ambitious Richard Strauss, then in his early thirties, offers more than a spectacular. It wasn’t long before the BBC Philharmonic’s principal string-players were beguiling the ear with intimate phrases (bouquets to Yuri Torchinsky, Steven Burnard and Peter Dixon, a classic ‘string trio’). Juanjo Mena – good to hear him away from the French and Spanish repertoire that a previous Prom and Chandos recordings have thus far presented – steered a course through Zarathustra that was unforced and seamless, often with really quiet playing, Mena bravely doing so in such a large auditorium and drawing the listener in: the double basses’ beginning ‘Of Science’ were but a whisper, Mena then giving this section an alchemist’s growth. He also burrowed under the notes to give a sense of narrative to what can ‘just’ be a showpiece, the BBC Philharmonic members responding with vitality and expressiveness as well as glorious expansiveness when required. The one miscalculation was an overloud, Gothic, organ, that unhelpfully dominated in fortissimos. A shame too that the blinding for-television lights came up too early, anti the ambiguous, fragile conclusion to this compelling performance.

Soprano Anne Schwanewilms performs R. Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouFour Last Songs, Strauss’s farewell to music and life (the two are indivisible), was also notable in the orchestra, some pertinent detailing brought out that tends to be obscured. For all that Anne Schwanewilms was somewhat tested by the highest-lying notes and in sustaining the longest of lines – maybe due to the heat (she disrobed after the first Song) – and she also suffered a hiatus in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (a vocal stumble, maybe forgetfulness), her experience in these settings shone through with some dignity. From the ‘sunrise’ that opens Zarathustra to the 50-year-later ‘sunset’ that closed Strauss’s career, the end of ‘Im Abendrot’ dragged, but one can sympathise with the singer and conductor holding on to dear life on behalf of the aged composer.

At the Portrait recital – kept bubbling and probing by interviewer Tom Service – we heard two works by Kaija Saariaho. Tocar (the Spanish for ‘touch’) was written as a test piece for the 2010 Sibelius Violin Competition, runic, intense, flowering intently with Bartókian edge and always communicative and suggestive. The composer thought this performance “fantastic”. She described Serenatas as a “collection of obsessions” and hoped the musicians would “serenade their lovers” while playing the five short movements. Unusually, Serenatas is scored for cello, piano and rather a lot of percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, assorted cymbals and bells, a gong and a big bass drum). Saariaho (born 1952) displays a keen imagination here, the music shimmering and fragrant, scrupulously coloured, and perhaps best heard in the same space as the instrumentalists. This trio of musicians and the earlier duo (Leanne Cody common to both) all excelled.

Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouLaterna magica (2008), a response to a commission from Berliner Philharmoniker, has its roots in Ingmar Bergman’s titular autobiography and the ‘magic lantern’ itself, the “first machine to create the illusion of a moving image…”. Saariaho has created a 22-minute piece for large orchestra (if not as generous in personnel as Strauss requested for Zarathustra), including two sets of timpani, piano, harp and celesta. Away from the composer’s stated extra-musical stimuli, the ‘innocent ear’ might hear Laterna magica as an exploration of the unknown, some players required to speak into and breathe through their instruments (woodwind and brass, of course) to add human vapour. Tempos and rhythms abound in this fastidiously composed music, subtle, shifting and, appropriately, light-projecting. Parallels with Lutosławski are apparent, so too with Birtwistle, particularly regarding perspective and tumult – not as seismic as his Earth Dances (a Proms revival is needed) but Saariaho may well have composed her own ‘secret theatre’. The intriguing glints, hues, layers and syncopations of Laterna magica were given a splendidly lucid UK premiere, which left you wanting more and certainly relishing a return visit.

Finally to an earlier Finnish composer, the great master that is Jean Sibelius. His remarkable Seventh Symphony (1924) – nearly his last music before many years of compositional silence – stops you in your tracks in its miraculous compression of symphonic form (so much said in twenty or so minutes) and its Palestrina-rich polyphony. Mena found rigour and compassion, loving every expressive turn (maybe too much) and signifying springtime nymphs in the lightest of rhythmic passages. This may not have been the most seamless or inevitable of accounts, nor the most rugged, but it had depth and nobility and left in no doubt of the music’s sheer magnitude.

Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic are settling in very nicely together. They return to the Proms on 7 August for Wagner, MacMillan (premiere) and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony.

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