Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 13: BBC SO / Mälkki @ Royal Albert Hall, London

27 July 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

Prom 13 saw the return of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall for a programme contrasting the new and the familiar, but it was the contributions of two female performers that stood out. Susanna Mälkki added to her growing reputation, conducting the orchestra with a supremely likeable confidence, authority and warmth throughout and violinist Leila Josefowicz put in a striking and memorable performance as the soloist in Duende – The Dark Notes by Italian composer Luca Francesconi.

The piece had an idiosyncratic and in some ways slightly unconvincing beginning, the large orchestra sounding unusually skeletal and open as Josefowich led in painstakingly quiet fashion. Concerns surfaced early on that this might prove to be a concerto of potential difficulty. The fact that by the end it had been transformed into a cohesive, engaging entity makes it all the more remarkable. For a piece that references Duende, ‘the demon of flamenco’ the opening passages emit a strange coldness but  gradually open up to reveal Messiaen like colours and short birdsong-like phrasing courtesy of the flutes and piccolo. Moments of strings-based glacial elegy are interrupted by shrill dissonance from the woodwind and brass. As the piece progresses the sense of a story being told grows until Josefowich dazzles with a manic, zealous and pressurised violin cadenza.

Before this five short orchestrations of Pierre Boulez’ Notations opened the concert. A sense of fragmentation defines the early stages, a precarious balancing of the muted against the enlivened. The disorientating feel of Notation No. 4 gives way to the strange atmospheres of Notation No. 7. The prickly textures and irregular punctuation of Notation No. 2 leave the greatest impression yet are still unable to shrug off the feeling that the transcriptions for smaller ensemble that the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group played at Cadogan Hall two days before sounded more radical and impactful.

The audience’s reward for the challenging opening half of the concert is a quite magnificent performance of The Planets by Gustav Holst. Mälkki may have made her mark primarily in conducting contemporary music but she excels in guiding the BBC SO through this popular staple of the orchestral repertoire. The Proms Extra talk ahead of the concert focused on the influence of The Planets on film music, nowhere more evident than in Mars which tonight the BBC SO ensured hit all targets with unerring accuracy. Venus radiated with a delicate poignancy and Mercury was made to sound fresh and airborne, the weightlessness of the strings especially tangible.

The shifts in dynamic and rich, resonating emotion of Jupiter were handled superbly, Mälkki making the orchestra sing as one joyous whole. The same can be said of the unyielding rise to prominence of Saturn and thrilling vigour of Uranus. The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s festival.

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Prom 13: BBC SO / Mälkki @ Royal Albert Hall, London