BBC Proms reviews

Prom 23: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen – Ravel, Salonen, Berlioz @ Royal Albert Hall, London

30 July 2007

French delicacy mingled with Finnish modernity in the BBCSO’s latest Prom, with that fine conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at the helm.

This was an opportunity for the Finn to prove his mettle as both composer and conductor, with the European premiere of his Piano Concerto sandwiched between works by two French masters.

Taking a highly dramatic play and turning it into an oratorio might look like a retrogressive step. With Romeo and Juliet, however, Berlioz imbues an immature work with a dignity the original doesn’t possess. This is a score of great refinement and loveliness. The vivid scene-painting is also a refreshing change to the more familiar flamboyance and histrionics of Prokofiev’s version for ballet.

The full work has narration by a tenor, mezzo and bass but here, scored for orchestra alone, it comes much closer to the “dramatic symphony” the composer outlined. With a selection of just four sections, and one of them (“Romeo seul”) transposed to the end of the programme, it takes on a more overt symphonic structure with a broad Allegro/Adagio/Presto/Allegro form.

Salonen brought a light and sensuous touch to some of the tenderest music Berlioz penned. The introductory Allegro fugato may describe the street fights of the Montagues and Capulets but it is never more than boisterous and soon gives way to the ardent melodies of the young lovers in an extended sequence implying a love session that goes on for a very long night.

The Prestissimo of the Queen Mab scene brings the work close to the atmosphere of Mendelssohn’s fairyland in A Midsummer Night’s Dream while closing this selection in the ballroom ended the evening on a high, if not quite true to the narrative of the tragedy.

The concert began with an equally refined performance of Ravel’s delightful homage to the French Baroque, Le tombeau de Couperin, more familiar perhaps from the original piano version. The dance theme was carried through to Salonen’s Piano Concerto, the opening movement bathed in neo-Baroque rhythms.

Full of varied textures and colours, the concerto takes in contrasting ideas of folk song and mechanical birds, tossed between soloist and orchestra, before melting into lush Romanticism. With a virtuosic performance by the work’s dedicatee Yefim Bronfman, the long cadenza which opens the second movement particularly demanding, it gripped from beginning to end.

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