Prom 53: Prophecies

Kullervo, Op.7
The Trojans at Carthage – Lamento and Trojan March
America (A Prophecy)

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Raimo Laukka (baritone)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
London Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Adès

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A complete Prom conducted by Thomas Adès was never likely to be routine, and in its programme and ordering, the present concert was indeed an engrossing if at times frustrating event.

Adès has apparently wanted to conduct Sibelius’s Kullervo (1892) for some years, and tonight’s performance gave evidence of a thoughtful and informed approach to the textural and editorial uncertainties of this ambitious symphonic cantata; one which the composer all but abandoned after initial performances had effectively established his reputation as ’the’ Finnish composer.

Interpretatively, there were numerous strengths. The diverse ’Introduction’ was guided decisively but flexibly, emerging not just as an introductory movement but as a compact overview of the work as a whole. ’Kullervo’s Youth’ had a brooding quality without the hypnotic slowness that Osmo Vänskä drew from this music at a memorable Prom five years ago. The male choruses were bracing if unidiomatic in ’Kullervo and His Sister’ – though, after a tentative and insufficiently seductive central interlude, Susan Bickley galvanised attention with her sisterly revelations; compared to whom, Raimo Laukka was dependable if far from riveting as the perennially unlucky tax collector. Adès fairly jog-trotted through ’Kullervo Goes to War’, hardly the energetic scherzo it should be, but controlled momentum going into the climactic stages of ’Kullervo’s Death’ with absolute sureness.

Yet there was an underlying sense that this was an assured final rehearsal rather than a fully-realised performance. Kullervo’s considerable impact depends primarily on the cumulative amassing of incident over its 70-minute span – a sure indication of the organic mastery and inevitability of transition that Sibelius was to master. Adept at highlighting salient detail, Adès often seemed unable to marshal it into a focused and coherent overall design. What emerged was less than the sum of its parts: an attentive approximation of what this piece is and can be.

Whether for logistical or aesthetic reasons, Kullervo occupied the lengthy first half, leaving the remaining items to take up the barely half-hour second part. The gaunt, Gluck-ian ’Lamento’ is only part of the ’Prologue’ that Berlioz wrote in 1863 for the separate staging of the final three acts of his summatory epic The Trojans. This and the orchestral version of the ’Trojan March’ make an unlikely but effective diptych, and were played with commitment. Maybe the enterprising Adès will give us the complete ’Prologue’ in the composer’s bicentenary year?

The concert concluded with America, Adès’s prophecy of cultural collapse and social disintegration that has inevitably taken on ominous overtones during the past year. In two fluid but tightly organised sections, America manages to touch on the salient features of a century of American music; without ever suggesting other than an authentically personal vision. Susan Bickley gave the declamatory, asexual-sounding Mayan texts with total conviction, while the choruses brought a smouldering anger to their contribution drawn from medieval Spanish and Latin sources. The visceral orchestral writing was projected with marginally less impact than in Adès’s Birmingham performance earlier this year, but the overall effect was never less than impressive. Anyone who has doubted the soul behind the intricate technical façade of Adès’s musical thought needs to hear this piece.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday, 3 September, at 2 o’clock

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