Prom 65 – Prom

Phaedra, Op.93 *
Oedipus Rex

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano) *

Oedipus – Robert Gambill
Jocasta – Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Creon / Messenger – Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Tiresias – Juha Uusitalo
Shepherd – Edgaras Montvidas
BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After an apposite pairing of Pintscher and Bruckner in Prom 57, Jukka-Pekka Saraste returned with an unlikely programme – linked, perhaps, by the tendency to hold emotion in check through a finely judged, highly personal abstraction. Intriguingly so in the case of Franco Donatoni (1927-2000), one of the group of Italian composers who helped shape European music in the 1950s and ’60s and closest to Luciano Berio in his preoccupation with how creativity communicates itself. Yet to see Donatoni’s language as an elaborate aural mind-game is mistaken, the more so as, from the mid-1970s, the rediscovering of invention gave his music new vitality and energy.

If Prom (1999) at all recalls Donatoni’s earlier inscrutability, this is countered by a feeling that – as his last major work – a sense of finality is being experienced rather than merely engendered. Not that its sequence of laconic ideas, finally tapering off into detached gestures, is at all pessimistic: having restored a sense of self to his music, Donatoni was not about to lose touch with his identity at this stage in his composing. Saraste gave the world premiere with the BBCSO at the Barbican in May 2001, and if tonight’s performance seemed marginally less secure, the range and sheer unpredictability of Donatoni’s inspiration was conveyed with palpable immediacy.

From evocative abstraction to concrete tragedy: Britten’s late vocal work Phaedra (1975) – in which the ill-fated heroine’s confession of lust for her stepson Hippolytus and subsequent suicide is depicted in five concentrated sections, following the example of Handel’s Italian cantatas (the accompaniment of recitatives by cello and harpsichord an ’authentic’ touch handled with imaginative freedom). Yet the immediacy of the vocal writing, and the spare but startling instrumentation for strings and percussion, make for a veritable dramatic scena; hardly surprising given that the piece was written for Janet Baker, one of Britten’s principal collaborators in his later years.

Music such as this can take a variety of interpretations. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson impressed with her smouldering expression and brooding sense of inevitable doom. The clarity with which she projected the text was especially welcome, given the immediacy of Robert Lowell’s translation from Racine. Saraste brought out an inner intensity from the scaled-down forces of the BBCSO, though it cannot be pretended that this is a piece well suited to the expanse of the Albert Hall acoustic.

More retribution, ancient Greek-style, in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. The first large-scale piece written in his neo-classical idiom, it finds the composer transferring his thinking about the essential objectivity of musical expression into the dramatic arena – hence the ’opera-oratorio’ tag – with an emotional abstraction inspired by Sophocles’s drama and filtered through the concrete stylisation of Jean Cocteau’s text.

Cocteau himself gave memorable (not always, apparently, for positive reasons!) renditions of the narration, whose recollection keeps the musical action at a remove. Here, actor and playwright Steven Berkoff assumed the role – appropriate given his reinterpretation of the Oedipus myth as East End low-life in Greek, and one he dispatched with sardonic humour. Excellent contributions too from Jan-Hendrik Rootering, engagingly pompous as Creon, Juha Uusitalo as a fatalistic Tiresias, and Edgaras Montvidas as an insinuating Shepherd. Robert Gambill’s Oedipus was more problematic. Sung with due appreciation of the tragic irony which befalls the hero, he often sounded strained to the extent that vocal projection became hectoring, though his final entry had all the requisite anguish. No doubts about Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Jocasta – rich-toned, expressive and pointing the conscious Verdi-isms to vibrant effect. Equally impressive was the BBC Singers, drawing unsuspected subtlety from Stravinsky’s austere choral writing.

Saraste obtained a vital contribution from the BBCSO – some untidiness of ensemble notwithstanding – and maintained a keen sense of drama without risking too overt an emotional response. Oedipus Rex is not a work that ’moves’ through its example, and this account gave us its stark, stoical, though never soulless demeanour in no small measure.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday 9 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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