Prom 5 – Berio Tribute

Concerto in C minor for oboe and violin, BWV 1060
Tableaux [world premiere]
Sequenza VII
Chemins IV
Apollon musagète

Heinz Holliger (oboe)

Northern Sinfonia
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The first of this year’s late-night Proms, and a welcome visit from the Northern Sinfonia and their new Music Director, Thomas Zehetmair. Well established as a violinist and, more recently, leader of the Zehetmair Quartet, he brings a similarly questing approach to the orchestral domain – and a sense of balance and ensemble which confirms an innate conducting sense.

The more vital when as testing a work as Philip Cashian’s Tableaux is receiving its first performance. 40 this year, Cashian has long evinced real flair when working with ensembles, and transfers naturally to the enlarged classical orchestra. From initial coruscating violin writing, a momentum is established which takes a welter of detail in its stride; passing through a more restrained take on ideas in the atmospheric central section, before Sibelian strings launch a final review of material – coming full circle on a curve of rising energy. A ’concerto for chamber orchestra’ dispatched with conviction by the Northern Sinfonia, and which deserves investigation by similarly-constituted groups.

Those expecting to encounter the music of Sandór Veress tonight may have been surprised to find Luciano Berio in his place. Yet besides the fact that the latter’s passing needed commemorating at the Proms, the opportunity to hear Heinz Holliger perform two pieces written for him was not one to be passed over. Holliger did not disappoint in a scintillating account of Sequenza VII (1969) – perhaps the most immediately appealing of the series in its irrepressible flights of fancy around the note B, heard offstage (here coming from either side of the platform from a pair of violas – a neat antiphonal touch), and extending its melodic formula with verve and elegance.

Berio’s Chemins series are a practical thesis on the art of transforming an existing work from the inside. Chemins IV (1975) does so directly but resourcefully on Sequenza VII – the strings enfolding the oboe line within an ambience of insinuating harmonies, and diverting its onward course with lively interjections which almost (but not quite) assume prominence by the close. Focal point and context can seldom have been blurred more subtly in musical terms.

Like his onetime predecessor Heinrich Schiff, Zehetmair takes every opportunity to combine playing and directing – and, with Holliger on hand, the performance of Bach’s C minor Concerto which opened the concert was a fluid and expressive one. Yet for all its idiomatic feel, the piece sounds like an idealised Baroque reworking of the two-harpsichord concerto in that key (actually the transcription in chronological terms); the contrapuntal interplay of the Allegros having a rather manufactured momentum, with the ’Andante’ similarly contrived in its lyricism. A classic instance of latter-day transcribers getting detail down to a tee, but missing that defining quality known as Bachian.

An incidental drawback of late-night Proms can be the (usually inevitable!) over-running which sees patrons heading for the exits in haste. An especial pity when the closing item is as persuasive a reading of Stravinsky’s Apollo as you’ll encounter. The Prologue’s aspiring trajectory was magically airborne (the composer’s later predilection for double-dotting – a questionable one – thankfully not taken literally), and Zehetmair took care to integrate the sequence of dances into a calm overall progression. The ’Pas de deux’ had a rapt inwardness, while the ’Apotheosis’ faded into the mists of imagination with affecting inevitability – vibrato governed by the needs of phrasing in a way that Stravinsky would surely have approved.

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