Saturday, 22 August 2015

Prom 47 Leifs bombs. Sakari surprises

How I had looked forward to Jón Leifs' Organ Concerto BBC Prom 47!  Leifs does monumental like few others do.  I'm a fan. (read more on this site)  If  there were ever an occasion for a performance worthy of the piece, it would have been at the Royal Albert Hall with the second-biggest organ in the world. The Nazis hated the concerto? For once, they might have been right. Leifs' Organ Concerto bombed.

It wasn't the performance. The BBCSO and Sakari Oramo are used to pulling off big spectaculars with the verve they deserve. Leifs' Organ Concerto looks big and ambitious, on paper and on the stage, but once the music started, its horrors were revealed. How dated it sounded, as if it were written  for horror movies in the 1930's. Bad horror movies, the kind that rely on cornball rather than real horror. At any moment I half expected a guy in vampire costume to fly across a rope hidden among the microphones. Nice special effects, though. A mallet a foot in diameter! Perhaps the percussionist was secretly laughing inside, thinking of Mahler. In any case, he (the percussionist, not Mahler) was having a sublime J Arthur Rank moment. And he didn't have to take his clothes off.

The organ was beautifully played, but the music felt strangely awry. Was Leifs having a joke, I wondered ? Did he take this seriously or was he making a secret point. Recently someone sent me an unpublished poem written by Edmund Blunden to a high official, who was notoriously full of inflated ballast. The official would have been thrilled - line after line of hyperbolic hype. Blunden's good enough that he write doggerel for a dog.

An exodus of sorts followed. which I eventually followed. No way was this because Liefs is "modern". The very opposite, the piece is so much of its time. One of the good things about BBC Proms broadcasts is that you can listen in the comfort on the radio. As we drove through Hyde Park, four ambulances and police cars shot past, sirens blaring. "More excitement than Jón Leifs" remarked the driver.  But what a surprise we were in for!

We had no expectations for Anders Hillborg's Beast Sampler but it turned out pretty interesting. Huge shapes dancing merrily along, big, brutish beasts created from invisible sound waves. And done with little percussion ! Oliver Knussen would have loved the wit and intelligence in this piece. Sakari Oramo is famous for his quiet, deadpan humour, too. No wonder he chose Hillborg after Liefs. 

Then, Beethoven Symphony no 7, which we've all heard so many times we weren't expecting miracles. But again, Oramo delivered a surprise. Gosh, what a lively, vivacious performance, sparking with athletic élan and energy.  The Prom had started with Sibelius Tapiola, which Oramo can conduct in his sleep and which the BBCSO have done so often they can do it on autopilot. So if it was oddly lifeless, perhaps Oramo was making a point, though it was lost on me. I thought they'd skimped on rehearsal time. Or, more likely, their hearts were in Beethoven.  Gosh it's good to hear an old warhorse return to stallion. Unorthodox, but refreshing. And so much fun. Without fun, what would be the point of good music?

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