The Lark Ascending
Märchentänze [UK premiere]
Symphony No.5 in E-flat, Op.82
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 26 August, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The arrival of effective but noisier air-conditioning allied to the ongoing decline in the behaviour of attendees has made Prom-going even more of a lottery. This could have been short-straw time. Not since the First Night of 2018 had I witnessed a performance from so remote a perch in the Royal Albert Hall. There were pluses as well as minuses on that occasion because the extensive sound installation accompanying the concluding item, Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams, was only properly visible from further back and decidedly more interesting than its musical content. A single upscale Mahler or Bruckner Symphony will still cast a spell from less-advantaged seats, whereas the present bill of fare, piecing together nature-inspired ruminations from the touring schedules of its featured artists, looked a riskier prospect. It says a great deal about the clarity and point of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra that so much information was conveyed. Perhaps the fullness of the hall soaked up much of its famously excessive resonance.
We opened with the Debussy, an enjoyable account if one lacking cumulative weight and sweep. More symphonic drive might have made its position in the programme feel odder still. While the conductor’s reputation at home (rather absurdly for a Tiggerish Etonian) is that of a disruptor – his Aurora Orchestra’s memorised performances have become a popular feature at the Proms – his career has had its more conventional side, including a long association with the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague. Modish presentational skills alone will not have secured Collon’s appointment by the FRSO – he’s its first non-Finnish chief. Fairer then to describe this La mer as focused on eliciting bejewelled detail from freshly imagined textures. From afar, there seemed to be plenty of harp and some lovely wind contributions. Towards the end, the conductor chose to restore the fanfares present in Debussy’s 1905 score from bar 237. Despite the musicians involved this was in Sibelian terms very much an Oceanides performance, trending south.
There’s no evidence to suggest that Vaughan Williams himself considered The Lark Ascending in any way exceptional so why has it morphed into the classical hit almost everyone knows? There was no trace of the piece in the Proms of the 1950s and 1970s and only one revival in the 1960s. What violinist doesn’t play it now? Pekka Kuusisto’s reading was well-received yet no doubt conceived for a different acoustic. Never a full-toned player, he barely brushed the violin with his bow at times, making a ghostly sort of impression at times less corporeal than the air-cooling system. My last live Lark was Hilary Hahn’s in November 2021 and that could scarcely have been more different. Which is not to say it was ‘better’. Kuusisto is not interested in tonal consistency or firmness of line, dipping abruptly then soaring upwards like a ‘real’ lark before applying more of his trademark folkish intonation-bending to a breezy middle section. Aficionados of Hugh Bean and Adrian Boult will have been challenged by this rethink but then performances in which you might not guess that the cadenza-like passages are unbarred, have begun losing ground to those which embrace discontinuities. In the debit column it is perhaps worth recalling that Ursula Vaughan Williams maintained that her husband, a reluctant countryman, could never have identified an actual lark.
After the interval more ‘small’ music, a buoyant folk-derived four-movement suite Thomas Adès entitles Märchentänze (Dances from Fairytale). One day before Anne-Sophie Mutter was scheduled to premiere another Adès concertante work at the Lucerne Festival, we were offered a chamber-scale expansion of a score composed for violin and piano in which original context the ‘skylark for Jane’ third movement features just the violin unaccompanied. A newly conceived aleatoric flutter around the soloist there momentarily challenged but for the most part this was like Peter Maxwell Davies in crowd-pleasing mode, preserving the haunting melodic quality of his sources before subjecting them to a spot of light deconstruction. Could the second movement, marked only ‘Guisto, ritmico’ prove to be Adès’s Farewell to Stromness? The concluding elfin dance suggested An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise in the soloist’s inebriated persistence. Still, nothing here to frighten the horses. “I needn’t have worried” was the comment of one neighbour.
There was great enthusiasm and an encore, a rendition of the fourth of the Sibelius Humoresques which the soloist introduced with a few very personal words referencing recent family bereavements. The performance burdened Sibelius’s airy invention with a weight of care and a surfeit of inflexion. Artless it wasn’t.
On to Sibelius’s Fifth, nowadays the most popular of the cycle and here given a bright, light, essentially optimistic workout. The portmanteau first movement for me lacked mystery for all the finely etched incidentals, including some keenly exaggerated pianissimos. Later pages gathered momentum efficiently without ever suggesting the nth degree of cumulative power. That said, the coda’s tricky fff timpani entry was bang on target! The slow movement worked better, unerringly paced with just enough give in the variations. The Finale was frisky rather than supercharged, again undercut by a tendency to underplay the rhetoric at crucial points, the aim presumably to avoid anything smacking of old-style bombast or inflation.
There followed one of those Proms encores in which everything has plainly been pre-planned. The background lighting was switched from plum to orange and we were subjected to Valse triste. It went well too, bar a spot of under-motivated hysteria before the return of the opening material. Did we really need it though?