Seven … The Lark Ascending … Daphnis et Chloé

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Seven [UK premiere]
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2

Akiko Suwanai (violin)

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Susanna Mälkki. ©Tanja AholaWhether through unforeseen illness or merely fatigue (he is conducting his new opera “Love and Other Demons” at Glyndebourne throughout August), Peter Eötvös had to pull out from this Prom – but this at least made possible a main-evening debut for Susanne Mälkki – whose late-evening Prom with Ensemble Intercontemporain last year amply confirmed her expertise in contemporary music. Nor was the programme altered – meaning that the UK premiere of Eötvös’s Seven was able to go ahead.

The latest of Eötvös’s numerous concertante works, this violin concerto is a “memorial for the Columbia astronauts” – an association which could have made for emotional crassness in other hands, but here is just the most immediate aspect of a score that bears the Eötvös hallmarks of harmonic fastidiousness and a texture as lucid as it is intricate. The ‘inspiration’ in reflected on several levels – notably with the distribution of six obbligato violinists around the auditorium (here at the exit points in the stalls), their contribution fanning out from the solo line in various and imaginative ways.

The work’s division into two parts recalls that of another commemorative violin concerto – that by Berg – but its formal trajectory is wholly different. Part One is a ‘Cadenza with Accompaniment’, its four sections allowing for contrasted evocations of the seven astronauts who perished in the Columbia tragedy five years ago – notably its Indian-born and Israeli participants; inferring of whose cultures might have risked pastiche, but which here opens out the music’s harmonic thinking with absolute naturalness. Part Two then builds continuously and cumulatively to a lengthy but unforced climax, drawing from the diverse instrumental forces (including electric guitar and sampler, as well as a range of percussion) a textural resource whose sheer fastidiousness is tribute to an inner ear that has few equals among composers of Eötvös’s generation, before fading out in subdued resignation.

Akiko Suwanai. ©Universal Music/Kiyotaka SaitoThe work was judiciously realised by Akiko Suwanai, who premiered it at last year’s Lucerne Festival. Projecting the solo line against such an instrumental array and in this acoustic cannot have been easy, but her technical control and tonal refinement were never in doubt. Nor did the Philharmonia Orchestra’s contribution lack anything either in clarity or precision, thanks in part to Mälkki’s consistently clear and undemonstrative direction. Speculation as to music’s longevity is inevitably subjective, but it is hard not to feel that Eötvös has here given us the most significant addition to the genre of the violin concerto since Ligeti’s masterly work appeared fifteen years ago.

Quite a contrast when Suwanai returned after the interval for Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Without at all banishing memories of the late Hugh Bean’s recording (conducted by Sir Adrian Boult), she brought subtlety and eloquence to a piece whose evocation of George Meredith’s verse can verge on the cloying, while Mälkki – who cannot have conducted the piece much if at all – found a natural ‘lift’ in its more animated central section that afforded requisite contrast. As an interpretation, this came over more as the music of Delius than of Vaughan Williams, but its innate refinement was hardly inappropriate. Odd, though, that an audience for which this piece was presumably one of the main draws (it has been much aired by Classic FM of late) should at times have seemed so restive – not least when it had managed to maintain a (very welcome!) silence and concentration through Eötvös’s longer and much more demanding work.

Sarah ConnollyThe remainder of the programme consisted of French music. Debussy’s Faune was elegantly but a little dispassionately rendered – with Mälkki evincing little sense of emotion behind the languor of the composer’s first masterpiece. She was, however, an unfailingly sensitive accompanist in “Shéhérazade” – Ravel’s song-cycle to tendentious poems by Tristan Klingsor. The performance was also a fine showcase for Sarah Connolly – best known in Baroque and Classical repertoire, but who looks set to join the line of British singers who have become identified with French song. Admirable, also, was the balance secured during the sequence as a whole, the panoramic sweep of ‘Asie’ never overwhelming the chasteness of ‘La flûte enchantée’ or deftly provocative imagery of ‘L’indifférent’.

To finish, the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé – rather less performed (not least at the Proms) now than it once was, but whose scintillating orchestration and expressive contrasts can never be gainsaid. A touch staid in ‘Lever du jour’, Mälkki underlined the delicate ‘interplay’ of ‘Pantomime’ with real feeling (abetted by exquisite flute-playing from Kenneth Smith), then adopted a steady tempo for ‘Danse générale’ to build to a climax of no mean abandon. She received a well-deserved ovation from orchestra and audience alike, thus hopefully ensuring a scheduled appearance at next year’s Proms!

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