BBC Proms reviews

Prom 25: BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds present an evening of orchestral textures by Aho, Saariaho and Shostakovich

4 August 2022

Spooky, electronic music echoed through the Albert Hall.

Prom 25

BBC Philharmonic & John Storgårds (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Who could resist the idea of a concerto for theremin, that quirkiest of electronic instruments, invented by a Soviet spy, and whose sounds depend on human gesture? Kalevi Aho’s Eight Seasons (a concerto presenting the eight Sámi seasons of the composer’s homeland, from Harvest to Midnight Sun) received its UK première on Thursday at the hands of Carolina Eyck, the internationally acclaimed virtuoso of the instrument, and the commissioner of the work.

As might be expected from its delineation of such a northerly landscape, the concerto tends to eschew the rich warmth of a major key, and concentrates instead on the pale and interesting wispiness of minor and modal shifts through complex layers of timbres from plaintive woodwind, muted strings and delicate percussion – including tinkling shells, cracking crockery (during the severe winter), spooky vibraphone passages, and a faint bell to signal the arrival of a bright midnight. Against stereotype, the concerto begins with the theremin at a bass pitch – one almost mistakes it for a cello or double bass solo – but the instrument’s more famous electronic whistling soon makes its presence felt, and there is no shortage of swooping glissandi, frenzied whooshing swirls of sound, and (at the concerto’s close) birdlike tweeting. If the chilly, barren landscape suggests something more lunar, the conversational swoops at one point must surely be the composer’s knowing nod to Oliver Postgate’s animated masterpiece, and that a bowl of warming soup (courtesy of the Soup Dragon) is being timidly requested.

The BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds provided a masterfully controlled foil of orchestral textures to Eyck’s extraordinary talent (the concerto also required her to sing and play at various points), leaving the listener both impressed and uneasy.

“Who could resist the idea of a concerto for theremin, that quirkiest of electronic instruments…”

Prom 25

Carolina Eyck & BBC Philharmonic (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Kaija Saariaho’s Vista was apparently inspired by a drive along the California coastline; California is in there, certainly, but more in the names of the piece and its two movements (‘Horizons’ and ‘Targets’) which summon all the overblown quackery of 1990s West Coast self-improvement ‘gurus’. Saariaho’s compositional techniques concentrate on multilayering minimally changing material; alas, though, when a large orchestra tackles this (which the BBC Phil did with their usual consummate skill), the resulting opaque chaos is far from a ‘vista’; indeed, the first movement, rather than conjuring a wild, glittering coastline, evoked mostly a glutinous, muddy swamp whose surface was occasionally disturbed by a passing slick or a flatulent bubble. The busier and more angular second movement, with its ostinato percussion passages and more violent brass surges at least added a little tension to the experience, but, as with Bruckner’s overworked symphonies, one felt that the musical point could have been made in half the time.

Shostakovich’s 15th symphony is a challenging work, and, like both of the other pieces, chock full of things to say. In contrast to Saariaho, though, Shostakovich puts all of his musical ideas out on the table in full view. The first movement is a case in point: all sorts of musical ideas are overlapped, as each new whimsy occurs – light-footed woodwind passages, William Tell quotes, a tinny little march – and while we may not quite know why they’re there, we can perceive them as being there. Storgårds and the orchestra really showed their mettle for their account, imbuing this rather odd symphony with all of its mix of humour, joy and brittle tragedy: the warm, but chilling funeral brass of the second and fourth movements (along with the magnificently sonorous trombone solo and its lightest possible echo in the flutes and muted trumpet); the spritz of the woodwind in the scherzo; the massive (and expertly controlled) climax of the last movement, and its descent, via inexorable rhythm stilled by the cellos and basses, into the airiest of violin passages and the spooky final ticking of percussion. This was a vista.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.

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