Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Strauss Sibelius Saariaho Juanjo Mena Prom 5

Juanjo Mena made his Proms debut last year before he officially became Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. This year's Prom gave him much higher profile, and a more challenging programme with which to show what he can do. Strauss Also sprach Zarathrustra and Sibelius 7th Symphony are huge pillars of the repertoire, almost guaranteed to shock and awe. The Willis organ with its 9997 pipes was designed for big statements like Zarathustra. It's almost impossible not to respond, especially given the sense of occasion that amplifies any performance in the Royal Albert Hall. Mena's Sibelius 7th had grandeur, though there's more to this most unusual piece that rips apart the very notion of symphony in just twenty minutes. Still, Mena has what it takes to wow and that's what we got.

Kaija Saariaho's Laterna magica was inspired by Ingmar Bergman. It evokes the mood of those aspects of Bergman's films where brief, unspoken glances carry great portent.  Bergman didn't need grand gestures to make a point. In that sense, Saariaho captures the essence of the director's style, whose black and white starkness is so different to her own multi coloured washes of sound. Saariaho refers to the "magic lantern", the first film machine that used light to capture movement on film. "While I was working with different tempi, rhythms with different characters became a major part of the piece's identity. A fiery dance thythm inspired by the flamenco, a shifting, asymmetrical rhythm provided  by speech, and an acceleratingn ostinato that ultimately loses its rhythmic character and becomes a texture" writes Saaiaho, in the programme notes. Saariaho's more usual voice emerges "music without a clear rhythm or pulse ... dominated by  strongly sensed colourful planes and airy textures, such as the unified colour of six horns".

It was clear that Anne Schwanewilms was indisposed. Normally she'd have sailed graciously through Struass' Vier letzte Lieder, making them the high point of the evening. Singers are not machines, they can't be expected to do perfection at all times. I'm not going to blame her. In any case, she's good enough to realize that she should have cancelled even at the last moment. Better this than singers who aren't even aware that the songs are beyond their abilities. We heard a shockingly awful Four Last Songs a  few years ago which left many aghast at its demented nerve. Schwanenewilms can sing Strauss, so let's forgive her.

Listen online here for 7 days, and to the TV broadcast on 19th July.
photo : Sussie Ahlberg

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