Ironically it is often the case
that the most badly attended concerts turn out to be some of the best.
This was certainly the case in the Royal Albert Hall with tonight’s
Prom, which according to the BBC Press Office was only 20 per cent capacity.
Throughout the evening it was
a sheer delight just to watch the BBC SO’s principle guest conductor,
Jukka-Pekka Saraste who has a style which is elegant, graceful and economic,
almost shy and introverted, but nevertheless totally in control of his
forces, maintaining a crystalline, steady beat.
This was the UK premiere of ‘en
sourdine’ – music for violin and orchestra (2002) - by the German composer
Matthias Pintscher (born 1971) and dedicated to its Prom soloist, Frank
Peter Zimmermann who gave the work its first performance in February
of this year with the Berlin Philharmonic under Peter Eötvos. The
score’s title ‘en sourdine’ means ‘with mute’ and both the soloist and
orchestra are required to play in a muted fashion. In the Concise
Oxford Dictionary the word ‘mute’ means: ‘Silent; not emitting articulate
sound; not giving tongue; of person or animal: dumb; not expressed in
In fact the soloist and orchestra
produced ‘mutant’ sounds which came across as alien to the human ear,
with the brass and percussion making dumb animal noises while the soloist’s
sour sounds mutated away from the human: I have never before heard sounds
like those produced by Zimmerman. The soloist played with a hybrid technique,
taking the sounds of his instrument beyond the known, beyond the human;
there are no words to describe those abject voices that Zimmerman produced,
and I am certain that they have never been heard before on the violin.
His melting playing spoke with
an alien tongue that communicated viscerally, by-passing the brain,
with his bow becoming a razor cutting through your eardrum. Sometimes
his phrasing was disconcertingly jagged and fractured, deconstructing
already splintered sounds into even smaller shards. After this performance
I was left with a tingling numbed sensation: Zimmerman’s eerie playing
goes straight to the nervous system. This was a disturbing, even unnerving
performance by a brilliant soloist, backed by superb playing from the
BBC SO, all guided by Saraste’s hyper-sensitive conducting.
In stark contrast to the first
offering, after the interval we were given Bruckner’s majestic 5th
Symphony in B flat major (1875/6).
The opening was hushed and serenely
sustained with Saraste getting the metre of the music just right, the
first brass entries having great weight and grandeur. From the Allegro
on the conductor took a very broad but highly concentrated view of this
colossal movement, mastering the architecture and orchestral balance
to perfection. The subdued string passages had a sense of hazy distance
and melancholic grace, pierced by the noble sonority of the brass.
Throughout this broadly paced
movement the playing was sensitive and concentrated, with the conductor’s
control of the dynamics never allowing the brass to swamp the rest of
the orchestra. Every thread of the score could be heard even in the
most fervid tutti moments. Indeed, Saraste’s emphasis on orchestral
clarity allowed the pointed woodwinds to come through in a manner very
reminiscent of Klemperer. The conductor also understood the special
dynamics of the Royal Albert Hall, allowing telling spaces to punctuate
the stabbing blocks of sound from the brass section. These broad pauses
are as important as the notes and Saraste judged them to perfection.
The concluding passages of the movement had great tension and intensity
without sounding heavy or forcedly melodramatic.
The opening of the Adagio,
with its stark contrast between the strings’ slow pizzicato triplets
and the solemn four-in-a-bar oboe theme, was hauntingly played and perfectly
paced, never sounding turgid, as it so often can. The second theme,
with its lush carpet of thick textured strings, had great weight and
warmth. As the movement progressed the music became more frantic, with
the conductor injecting a sense of urgency and tragedy into the music.
The Scherzo had the right
swaggering lilt and glib humour emphasising the heavy-footed Austrian
peasant country dance.
Saraste rightly made the music
sound sinister, heavy and grotesque and this movement is surely Bruckner
at his most fantastical (and he himself referred to this symphony as
his ‘Fantastic’). The BBC SO responded to the conductor’s manic interpretation,
playing as if they themselves were possessed by a drunken madness: a
Like the first movement the last
was broad, measured and weighty whilst also being graceful and chamber-like,
with all the orchestral details coming through, even in the heavy brass
passages. The opening solo for clarinet was humorously pointed and directly
prefigures Till’s cheeky woodwind theme from Til Eulenspiegel's Merry
Pranks. This was followed by weighty strings played with great urgency
and panache. As Saraste progressed with his rock-steady tempo he slowly
increased the tension, urgency and mania in the music, unleashing ever
more power from his orchestra, until the concluding overwhelming passages
had the full BBC SO awash in a blaze of glorious sound. The only thing
that let this performance down was the woolly timpani playing of John
This was certainly one of most
‘musical’ and ‘inspired’ Proms to date and it was a tragedy the turn
out was so low. I highly recommend you listen to the re-broadcast of
this Prom on Thursday 4th September at 2.05 pm on BBC Radio