Music of France, England and Finland stylishly presented at the Albert Hall.
The star of Friday evening’s Prom was undoubtedly the violinist Pekka Kuusisto, whose immaculate account of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending brought to this already popular work a new level of delight. The deliberately hesitant pianissimo fluttering of the opening bars silenced audience noise with its promise of a performance imbued with subtlety, and we were not disappointed. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Collon (their first non-Nordic conductor) responded adroitly to Kuusisto’s shifting dynamics and moods, keeping volume and texture just so, such that the composer’s musical depiction of an English pastoral summer morning, with all its shimmering colours, shone out. Kuusisto’s appeal, though, isn’t just in his technical skill; he’s a brilliant communicator – a feature sometimes lacking in instrumental virtuosi. He makes constant eye contact with the audience, and his body language displays an ongoing invitation to listen.
We got even more of this in his performance of Thomas Adès’ UK première of Märchentänze (‘Dances from Fairytale’), a set of four loose arrangements of English folksongs adapted for violin and orchestra from an earlier work for violin and piano. The first couple of these (the light and frothy ‘Leggierissimo’ and the slow and melodious ‘Giusto, ritmico’) invited comparison with Britten’s folksong settings for tenor and piano (well-known tunes with a twist to the harmonic underlay), but they travelled further away from the melodic baseline, besides replacing the solidity of sung text with the more mutable airiness of a violin. The clarinet picking up the ‘round’ of ‘Giusto, ritmico’ with a contrasting folk tune underneath syncopated pizzicato from the soloist was magical. The second two movements (‘A Skylark for Jane’ and ‘Swift’) took us deeper into mid 20th century techniques, as the former involved ad lib twittering string entries to portray ‘an exaltation of larks’, and the latter some brilliantly balanced interweaving of variations on several melodic fragments clashing and twisting against each other. Again, bewitching solo work and an intelligent understanding of balance and texture from Collon and the orchestra sealed this new work with a stamp of ‘must listen again’, just as a spellbinding encore performance of Siblelius’ Op. 89 G-minor Humoresque signalled a winning combination of forces.
“The star of Friday evening’s Prom was undoubtedly the violinist Pekka Kuusisto…”
Of the two longer works in the programme, perhaps Debussy’s La mer was the least successful. This is all relative, of course, because the playing throughout was flawless, and Collon’s precise and nuanced direction was clear to see and hear. But it was this precision that didn’t always serve the piece well. It worked for the latter two movements, where the mercurial qualities of moving wind and water require sudden swerves of dynamic and speed for their portrayal (and these were delivered fulsomely), but ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ needs a hazy, fully impressionist, ambience, and here (especially in the woodwind entries), exactitude of attack felt very ‘un-French’, and one wanted more of a blurring of timbres.
The fifth is arguably the most popular of Sibelius’ symphonies, and here the orchestra was on home turf. It’s rather a cliché to suggest that Finnish orchestras are best at performing Sibelius’ music, but in the case of FRSO, this was a truism. Clearly, they’re at home with music of all characters, but Sibelius needs a ‘national heartbeat’, and it was heard loud and clear in the instinctive articulation of the slow creation and release of harmonic pressure in the first movement, the relaxed but fragile warmth of the near-Ländler in the second, and the frenetic, fractured build to the expansive ‘swan theme’ in the third. Throughout, we were treated to agile contrasts of tempo and dynamic, and some calculatedly varying textures: from the strings (whether lush bowed notes or meticulously co-ordinated pizzicato); from horns that were sinister and expansive by turns; from beautifully crafted woodwind lines; from brass that could be either chilly and threatening or warm and welcoming. This was a truly Finnish performance.
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.