In what was probably the shortest Prom so far, Christoph von Dohnányi conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in works by three composers from the 20th Century (although Thomas Adés will hopefully continue well into the current one).
The brevity of Webern’s orchestration of Bach’s Ricercar, Adés’ Powder Her Face suite and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle did nothing to lessen the impact of the programme.
J S Bach’s exercise in counterpoint,The Musical Offering was written at the bidding of Frederick the Great in 1747. Anton Webern took the second Ricercar in 1934-5 and re-coloured it with his own orchestration. The result is a curious blend of 20th and 18th Century sounds, atonality constantly threatening to burst through the formality of Bach’s fugue, rather like a monster in a sci-fi movie ripping off its human face to reveal the alien beneath. The Philharmonia gave a delightfully delicate rendition of this bizarrely charming piece.
The clash of old and new ran through the Adés too, sounding like a Palm Court Orchestra on speed. Premiered by the composer at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, this selection of themes from his 1995 opera, based on the scandalous life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, was receiving its first London performance. Set as Overture, Waltz and Finale, it is a humorously tantalising appetiser of the work which is due to be staged by the Royal Opera in the Linbury Studio next year. A lurching foxtrot, alcohol-fuelled waltz and tipsy tango swept us into the interval after a first half lasting less than 20 minutes. This most popular of contemporary composers was on hand to receive the audience’s adulation.
The orchestra had its work cut out summoning up Bluebeard’s oppressive castle in the bright and cavernous Albert Hall, with just a pink mauve scar smeared across the organ for atmosphere. Even the gloomy depths of Bartók’s marvellous score struggled in the first half hour to draw us in but by the time the momentous fifth door was flung open, we were plunged head-long into Bluebeard’s darkness-to-light-and-back-again world.
The Philharmonia’s journey from extreme gloom to a tainted light, flowers and clouds dripping with blood, was a wonderfully engaging one. The scene was set by Mátyás Sárközi as Speaker; the performance could have benefited from some eerie sound effects (as indicated in the text) as the castle breathes its tragic secrets but ultimately the music did the work.
There were strong protagonists in Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant and bass Falk Struckmann but this was truly the orchestra’s evening, a detailed and evocative excursion into Bartók’s night.