BBC Proms reviews

Prom 62: BRSO/Jansons – Honegger and Beethoven @ Royal Albert Hall, London

30 August 2007

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

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

In addressing the social apathy directed at contemporary composition, Swiss composer Arthur Honegger did not pull any punches:

“The public doesn’t want new music; the main thing it demands from a composer is that he be dead.”It seems a rather cruel irony, therefore, that the man’s music has struggled for its place in the repertory since his passing in 1955.

Indeed, after receiving its UK premiere at the Proms in 1949, Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 (1945-6) – often regarded as the most renowned of his five works in the medium – has returned to the BBC’s summer music festival only twice, with the same conductor at the helm on both occasions. A sorry state of affairs, you might say. Yet, it is difficult to conceive of a more worthy and dependable advocate than Mariss Jansons, whose first-half performance of the so-called Symphonie liturgique with the superlative Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra brought this work vividly to life sixteen years after doing so with the Oslo Philharmonic.

Despite presenting a noticeably smaller number of string players than other orchestras at the Proms this season, it was these instruments which vigorously propelled the BRSO through the opening Dies irae. Their sheer intensity was breathtaking, providing an excellent foundation for clamorous brass interjections. The ensuing De profundis clamavi received a truly heartfelt account, beginning with a deeply touching chorale passed from strings to woodwind. The warmth of timbre from the orchestra was quite tremendous, and continued to serve them well in the more tumultuous material of the central episode. There was also some immaculate playing from the first flautist, whose nightingale song at the movement’s end projected beautifully over the brass section’s solemn chords.

The bellicose finale, entitled Dona nobis pacem, was delivered with complete and utter aplomb. The rousing horn solo near the opening, the woodwind’s distinctly attitudinal trills, and dazzling sound effects from the brass (flutter-tonguing and glissandi among them) all served to make a case for Honegger’s work, despite intermittently wayward timing from the orchestral piano. The coda, which recalled the previous movement, brought the symphony to a sombre close with simple, affectionate solos from flute, ‘cello, violin and piccolo over eerie muted strings.

Many of the positives from this virtuoso performance continued after the interval in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 125. This was a brisk, no-nonsense reading of the work, made clear in the first movement when junctions conventionally viewed as opportunities for dramatic exploitation often came and went without spectacle. An account of thrilling momentum and fluency was born – highlighted by some fine woodwind playing (the staccato exchanges between flute, oboe, and bassoon at the movement’s end were particularly attractive) – though one might have wished for a greater sense of theatre.

The scherzo contained some moments of fascinating insight, not least when Jansons placed remarkable emphasis on the horn during the march-like third theme of the Molto vivace, at the expense of more voluminous tone production from the woodwind. The central Presto was characterised by effervescent solos from both horn and oboe, and the eventual shift from major to minor at the end of this central passage was poignantly executed. The slow movement was equally well crafted, as Jansons deftly unwrapped Beethoven’s dense textures, drawing every ounce of emotional worth from the strings’ expressive melodies.

The loving tenderness conjured in the final bars of this Adagio molto contabile was shattered by a violent attacca, launching the music into an awe-inspiring account of the finale. The imposing ‘cello and double bass recitatives – powered by a luxuriously bottom-up sound – and adroitly evocative recollections of the second and third movements soon gave way to the restless, unremitting ecstasy of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Jansons maintained a tremendous sense of equilibrium amongst his outstanding instrumental musicians, and also between the orchestra and the commanding resonance emanating from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus.

Once again, however, an outstanding orchestral performance of the Choral Symphony was blighted somewhat by a disappointing group of soloists. Baritone Michael Volle toiled in the lower registers of his opening declaration, failing to stir up his comrades in the vigorous fashion decreed by the text. That said, he and soprano Krassimira Stoyanova – who possesses an impressively rich tone – were dominant when the quartet sang as one. Unfortunately, the voice of mezzo-soprano Lioba Braun was often forcibly submerged beneath an ocean of sound, its pleasurable qualities only occasionally gaining audibility above the waves, whilst tenor Michael Schade seemed somewhat out of his depth, lacking gravitas and disconcertingly dependent upon his score.

Soloists aside, however, there is no question that the BRSO is one of the finest orchestras to grace the stage of the Royal Albert Hall during the 2007 Proms season. Hopefully they will make swift return to our shores.

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