Prom 52 – Manfred Symphony

Pan and Syrinx, Op.49
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Manfred – Symphony in B minor after Byron, Op.58

Vadim Repin (violin)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A relatively standard Prom this season from Sakari Oramo and the CBSO, though Nielsen’s Pan and Syrinx is a masterly tone poem difficult to programme and consequently undervalued. It’s also a work that the orchestra played frequently (including the Proms in 1987) and recorded under Simon Rattle, ensuring a level of familiarity which Oramo was able to hone according to his own convictions. And this was a performance of real insight – shaped with textural and tonal finesse, though the climactic ’pursuit’ could have had even more abandon. The audience seemed listless – Nielsen’s follow-through of ideas is too subtle to be grasped on a cursory hearing.

Not so Brahms’s Violin Concerto, which can’t have missed out on many seasons since the Proms started in 1895. Vadim Repin has few peers among soloists of the younger generation: his playing of Shostakovich’s First Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall earlier in the year was breathtaking in its assurance, which made his slightly tentative rendition at the Proms the more disappointing. A stolid entry, after the robust if flowing introduction, suggested he and Oramo had not quite decided on how best to proceed. The development had well-judged momentum, but the overall mood too often verged on the anonymous, though Repin’s opting for Leopold Auer’s cadenza – shorter and more overtly virtuosic than the familiar one by Joachim and well integrated thematically with the overall score – was a welcome touch.

In the ’Adagio’ too, Repin’s occasionally self-conscious expressiveness didn’t always accord with Oramo’s easeful shaping of orchestral detail – notably in the minor-key inflections of the central section. The finale was better in all respects – humorous but not driven, as Brahms intended, and with a sure balance between the playfulness of its themes and the intricacy of its overall form. Had the rest of the performance had this degree of focus, it would have been a memorable one indeed.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is hardly a rarity these days. It’s a symphonic hybrid that can easily sprawl. Oramo’s persuasive conducting of the Fourth Symphony, in Birmingham last year, certainly augured well for this Prom, and so it proved. A baleful introduction gave rise to an incisive but never superficial account of the first movement, drawing together the episodic nature of its themes and culminating in a viscerally intense coda (which, like that of Francesca da Rimini, really benefits from accelerating rubato, as here). Oramo set a lively but not headlong tempo for the scherzo – among Tchaikovsky’s most winsome creations – and, both here and in the agitated ’pastorale’ of the third movement, convincingly linked fresh ideas with the recurring motifs that give the work a symphonic unity.

There’s not necessarily a symphonic inevitability, though, as the finale can all too clearly prove. By treating it as a cumulative sequence of contrasting moods, Oramo maintained real anticipation going into the apotheosis. Yet with an electronic organ seemingly channelled through the pipes of the in-restoration Albert Hall instrument, the effect was conclusive but far from cathartic (why do so few conductors opt for the requested harmonium – thickening the texture rather than over-weighting the sound). Taken overall, this was an impressive demonstration of interpretative insight and orchestral responsiveness (with, not surprisingly, the many anticipations of Sibelius keenly brought out). For an encore, Oramo’s conducting of the ’Pas de deux’ from Act Two of The Nutcracker was soulful and kept its heart firmly away from its sleeve.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Saturday 30 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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