Classical and Opera Reviews

Prom 6: Nielsen: Symphony no. 4; Rachmaninov and Thea Musgrave @ Royal Albert Hall, London

20 July 2005


I’d wager this is going to be one of the more testing Proms seasons of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 75 years, as they perform each of their 12 concerts with a different conductor. Tonight their response was nothing less than first class for Osmo Vanska in Nielsen’s Inextinguishable symphony.

On this form there was never a likelihood of the fire being dimmed, let alone extinguished, as Vanska, visibly more animated than in the first half, used the high voltage opening to take his audience by the scruff of the neck, never releasing his hold until the end. We were held rapt in the first movement by the sweeping string lines, a captivating uncertainty between flute and trombone wonderfully open E major tonality at the end, relaxing slightly for the pastoral second movement.

Even here the tension subsided just one notch, with great attention to detail from the wind section in their ‘village band’ interlude. The dramatic third movement found its main theme intense in the hands of the string section, anguished in the winds, and the finale reasserted the strength of the opening. Rolling timpani traded blows across the concert platform, bold brass motifs underpinned the gorgeously full string sound and Vanska brought the symphony to an exhilarating conclusion.

In fact this was the second crowd pleaser, the first half ending with a winning performance of Rachmaninov’s first published opus from Stephen Hough. Looking as though his shirt had come through an argument with a tin of white paint, Hough gave a performance that fizzed with energy, overcoming any difficulties presented by the density of the keyboard writing with ease.

The broad first theme lingered long in the memory, given affectionate rubato by Vanska, and although soloist and orchestra occasionally lost their togetherness the performance reinforced the critical acclaim given to Hough for his recent Hyperion recording of the work.

Completing the triumvirate was Thea Musgrave’s Turbulent Landscapes, its six sections taking paintings of William Turner as their inspiration, and these were reproduced in the program, albeit in black and white. Vanska added the colour for us with the help of sterling contributions from wind and brass, the tuba amusing with its mute the size of a large saucepan!

There was light humour, too, in Musgrave’s harmonic treatment of both French and British national anthems, each relevant to the paintings they depicted. It’s not always easy to appraise a half-hour work on the strength of one listen but there was much to admire about Musgrave’s evocative sound pictures.



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