Prom 59 – Nessun Dorma (Insomnia)

Insomnia [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

NDR Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Insomnia is not the music for an imaginary Hitchcock movie. Nor is real insomnia a pleasant experience – as a paid up member of Insomniacs Anonymous I speak from bitter experience – no more than Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recent and substantial work an easy listen. It certainly pulls no punches and does not gild the lily, mirroring in sound the total desperation felt by genuine insomniacs. Here it received its UK premiere in a notably vital, well-rehearsed and committed performance. It was a pity that the composer was not present to hear his handiwork – presumably he is “Sleepless in Los Angeles” preparing for the opening of the Philharmonic’s new hall.

Structurally, Insomnia is a set of variations on a chorale separated by a ritornello. It is music of high-octane extremes, on occasion the aural equivalent of a battering ram. In addition to the usual battery of percussion, the massive orchestra sports a quartet of Wagner tubas. As Salonen writes in the programme, “The musical processes in Insomnia have a lot in common with the psychology of a sleepless night; some thoughts become prison cells we cannot escape; others keep coming back persistently. Towards the end the music finally calms down to an Adagio. The very moment we think we have finally arrived at the gates of sleep the sun rises in its full glory. A new day begins exultantly.”

In its more frenetic episodes the music reflects the obsessive unremitting energy of John Adams, elsewhere there was fascination in spotting the musical cross references – Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise in the piece’s neurotic central section, the Act III Tristan prelude in the divided cellos later on. Eschenbach gave it his all. At the close the audience appeared limp with exhaustion and suitably cowed.

Cowering in the shadow of this aural blockbuster, the ’Emperor’ was made to sound like chamber music by comparison – this was the most obstinately unheroic of Emperors. Aimard is a fine intelligent pianist and Eschenbach himself is one of the great pianists as well as a major conductor. However, the performance fell victim to an increasingly prevalent fad for de-constructing Beethoven. What this amounts to is: ’if it is normally played this way, at all costs play it another way, any other way’. The result was peculiarly disengaged and lacking in cumulative tension or momentum, as if the score were being closely observed and dissected rather than lived. Things improved considerably in the slow movement which was sensitively given – there is less room for interpretative point scoring – but the final Rondo once more emerged as disjointed and lacking in elation. At the end one asked, “So what?”

Redemption of a sort came with Brahms’s Second Symphony. Given Brahms’s Hamburg upbringing, the NDR Orchestra must be deemed to be the equivalent of a home team playing on their home ground. There have certainly been more polished performances – the trombone’s first movement chorales could have done with greater unanimity and the orchestra’s playing was decidedly rough and ready – but under Eschenbach’s energetic direction this was undoubtedly a ’real performance’, lithe and tensile in the opening movement (repeat taken), warm and glowing in the second, definitely ’grazioso’ in the third (albeit with a touch of schmalz) and suitably exultant in the finale. Interestingly – and much to the music’s benefit – Eschenbach really made the most of the Finale’s explosive syncopation which is often glossed over.

As an encore, a deliciously light-on-its-feet Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride, a welcome change from the ubiquitous Hungarian or Slavonic dance. Save, Eschenbach played it as an encore two years ago with Orchestre de Paris.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 5 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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