A Night on the Bare Mountain
The Only One [BBC co-commission: UK premiere]
Symphony No.5 in E-flat, Op.82
Nora Fischer (singer)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 8 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Sakari Oramo has pursued a typically varied repertoire over his appearances at this season’s Proms, and this one was no exception in its juxtaposing two contrasted recent pieces with two wholly different classics such as have long been staples of these concerts.
Although it made its debut here 105 years ago, Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867/86) has latterly been heard in several versions, but here marked a return to Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition with its radiant depiction of daybreak at the close. Oramo drew a suitably rapt response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and if the preceding evocation of devilish goings-on felt a little inhibited (notably that episode with the fanfaring brass), the overall reading did justice to this hybrid of reckless inspiration and streamlined reappraisal.
Presumably imagination was the link between this work and Louis Andriessen’s song-cycle The Only One (2018). The Dutch composer was inspired by the poetry of Belgian author Delphine Lecompte whose The Animals in Me provided texts for these five settings – interspersed with interludes during which singer Nora Fischer moved around the platform while gradually changing her attire from that of girl into woman. This ‘innocence to experience’ trajectory was mirrored by that of the songs, whose whimsy had toughened into irony by the close. Stylistically this was typical in its adept melding of Stravinskian harmony with an oblique take on cabaret, but Fischer’s voice (think Björk-lite) against Andriessen’s pellucid orchestral textures proved diverting and not a little affecting.
Such qualities have often been to the fore in Judith Weir’s music, though Forest (1995) finds them at their most abstract. A sizable orchestra (by her standards) is deployed with admirable restraint, salient motifs metamorphosing eventfully in a process of thoughtful arborescence – the emergence of folk-like elements suggesting an atmosphere far removed from forbidding Nordic landscapes. The ending, unexpected yet by no means arbitrary, left one anticipating without necessarily wanting more – itself typifying the ambivalence at the core of this piece.
Any such anticipation was fulfilled by Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony (1915/19). Those who attended Thomas Dausgaard’s revelatory reading of the original version earlier in the season might have wondered whether Oramo’s take on the definitive score would have the usual conviction and this it did; notably in a first movement whose transition into its ‘scherzo’ half was as finely judged as was the ensuing acceleration towards the coda. Such visceral energy set up a potent contrast with the Andante, poised between intermezzo and slow movement, replete with such niceties as the exquisite pause before the woodwind’s disarming pay-off. A pity that the horns were rather out-of-sorts during the Finale’s ineffable ‘swan theme’, though this failed to undermine progress towards the life-affirming apotheosis.
Not an incandescent performance, then, but one which left no doubt as to the greatness of a work as has rarely gone unheard at these concerts since its first appearance eighty-six years ago. And to have had both the extant versions of Sibelius Five in one season was in itself a treat.