BBC Proms reviews

Prom 43: Philharmonia / Salonen @ Royal Albert Hall, London

17 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

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

It’s very charitable to programme a challenging new work (The Hague Hacking) with an all-time favourite (Boléro), since it brings an entirely new audience to a living composer. And with a star conductor in Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as world renowned duo The Labéque Sisters, this could have been an epiphanous evening.

The three scenes of De Falla’s El amor brujo (Love, the magician) had an immediate and episodic nature reminiscent of many film soundtracks. There were fresh details in both the music and its orchestration – judicious sprinklings of piano and miniature bombast from the strings were amusing, at least, but not substantial.

The UK premiere of Andriessen’s The Hague Hacking had arresting moments and striking clashes of sound and atmosphere, but the piece overall seemed a sour, ugly work. It began with a frozen, immobile tension created by the strings, now and then interrupted by dissonant outbursts from the Labéque sisters on their two pianos, but from that point on the music flatly refused to move in any solid or secure direction.

Andriessen’s musical language never reminded me of any other 20th or 21st century composer, which must speak volumes for his originality, but eccentricity is no substitute for personality, and what was missing was a change of gear or a sense of momentum, drive or purpose. Each idea was presented as another possibility, not an inevitability. There was also a token bit of “beautiful flute music” towards the end for some reason, which seemed like a very self-conscious move, even somehow patronising.

The third item on the bill really gave Esa-Pekka Salonen something to do, and he did it superbly. To conduct Ravel’s ballet Mother Goose he put his baton down and sculpted to sound with his bare hands. This was particularly effective in creating transparent sonorities with the strings, who were either dashing off in comic flurries or lunging dangerously back and forth.

At the end of the ballet he created the most gorgeous string sound I’ve ever heard, but which sadly, having listened again on the BBC iPlayer, doesn’t have a hope of being captured by recording engineers. It was, as with a lot of Ravel, both a sincere outpouring and a model of restraint.

Aside from wonderful solos from the woodwind the unsung star of the show was the Philharmonia’s harpist Hugh Webb, who punctuated the exotic orchestration with more than a handful of subtle touches.

The Boléro, unfortunately for it, only ever gets interesting when something goes wrong; the drama of the piece being the expectation of either a late entry or an exposed wrong note. This performance had both, which was ideal.

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Prom 43: Philharmonia / Salonen @ Royal Albert Hall, London