BBC Proms reviews

Prom 36: Bruckner – Symphony No 6; Unsuk Chin, Weber @ Royal Albert Hall, London

10 August 2005

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

At this stage of the season The Proms begin to welcome visitors from overseas, and this concert with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester of Berlin offered the chance to see one of today’s great conductors in action. So why all the empty seats? At best the Albert Hall must have been half full, a very disappointing sight and one which must have dimmed the morale of the orchestra.

Certainly they took a while to settle, and the horn entries early on in Weber’s Der Freischutz overture were tentative and unsettled. By the time the Allegro set in Kent Nagano had seized control, but the danger persisted of a potential anticlimax.

Fortunately a new work from Unsuk Chin was on hand. snagS & Snarls may not be a typist’s dream, but it made for a highly entertaining song cycle. Soprano Christine Oelze seemed rather out of breath in the long-winded, meandering verses of the first song, an effective parody of Row Your Boat, but she really hit her stride after that, communicating the surreal humour of Lewis Carroll’s verse directly to the audience.

Chin based the work on material from Alice In Wonderland, doctoring the text slightly for musical gain. The orchestration held plenty of surprises, not least in the last poem where the composer employed everything and the kitchen sink in the percussion department. Oelze sang clearly and in good humour, and both she and the rhythmical chef were delighted with their ovations.

A possible reason for the stayaway audience was the programming, with one of Bruckner’s lesser-known symphonies as the main work. On this showing, however, Nagano proved it needn’t be so, as he projected a strong case for the work and its ever present, major-minor tonality struggle. The conductor sought and found the heart of the Adagio, and the timpani excelled in a perfectly paced Scherzo as Nagano secured a wonderful brass tone.

The whole sound was excellent in fact, the Albert Hall an ideal acoustic for Bruckner’s broad canvas, and Nagano using some inventive and successful instrument placing – the double basses over by the harps and the horns behind the violas. His charismatic approach encouraged a full string sound, cellos and basses in particular striding forward at the opening. The final ovation was long and well deserved, even if the delay before applauding betrayed the unfamiliarity of the piece. It was just a crying shame there weren’t more people there to enjoy it.

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Prom 36: Bruckner – Symphony No 6; Unsuk Chin, Weber @ Royal Albert Hall, London