sun 21/07/2024

Prom 13: Josefowicz, BBCSO, Mälkki | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 13: Josefowicz, BBCSO, Mälkki

Prom 13: Josefowicz, BBCSO, Mälkki

Ravishing orchestral playing in Boulez and Holst, superb control from the Finnish conductor

Susanna Mälkki: effortlessly commandingChris Christodoulou

A packed Albert Hall told an instructive story: programme Holst’s The Planets at the Proms and you can dare to do anything in the first half. Besides, though it will be a red letter day when we don’t have to put “women” in front of “conductors”, the Marin Alsop Last Night effect may have kindled interest in Susanna Mälkki, top of a still too-small list from the two concerts I’ve heard her give with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Mälkki seems just as authoritative in mainstream romantic and 20th century scores as she is in thornier so-called contemporary music (she spent seven years with Ensemble Intercontemporain; in the 2016-17 season she takes up her post as Chief Conductor of the lucky Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra). She has a fabulous rhythmic sense; I found myself rocking in my swivelling seat not just in Boulez’s five orchestral extensions of his piano Notations but also in a work of far less certain intent, Luca Francesconi’s Duende: The Dark Notes.

Leila JosefowiczDuende, receiving its UK premiere, isn’t really a violin concerto; fearless Leila Josefowicz’s role (the violinist, pictured right) never dominates, and only twice, briefly, is she asked to do what a violinist usually does – to sing. Resistant to reading the note before I heard the performance, it was surprising to learn that there was any connection at all with “the demon of flamenco”. What we get is mostly stereotypical stratospheric twittering – Holst manages that much more effectively in the “Mercury” movement of The Planets – and a sense that the foreground is about to emerge, but it never does. The usual story of so many new scores: all process, hardly any “hooks” (though the xylophone contributes a scintillating few seconds).

As sound, Boulez’s world is so much more engaging. The sensuous layering, in the line of Ravel and Debussy, sounded absolutely fabulous given the haloing of the unpredictable hall; no detail passed unrevealed, though it never quite gave away secrets (there’s a mysterious passage in the last of the 1945 pieces to be orchestrally treated, No 7, in 1997, where BBCSO flutes almost broke into hypnotic melody).

It was clear that Mälkki had her fingers on every pulse in Holst's universe

All that brought only sniggers from the atrocious group in Box Five right behind me. You’d have thought they’d have settled for what presumably they’d come to hear, The Planets, but it only got worse: several glasses too many clinked during movements, the chat level rising by the movement. Once I’d moved along out of earshot but into an unfortunate sightline, the worst offender – a city type trying to impress the girls – could still be seen out of the corner of one eye, exercising vigorous Nazi salutes to the militaristic rollicking of “Uranus”.

So much for total concentration. But even with such distractions, it was clear that Mälkki had her fingers on every pulse in Holst's universe. She was swiftly energetic in the juggernaut of war and the dances of Jupiter, with no slack as she moved into his big tune. She was atmospheric and patient in the profundities of Saturn – with a superb climax freighted by the magnificent BBC Symphony Orchestra brass ensemble – and the reaches of outer space in “Neptune”, where Elizabeth Burley’s celesta glinted magically and the oboe group pierced the heart as much as the youthful voices of the Elysian Singers wafting down from the Gallery. This is a Proms piece par excellence, with that spatial effect unique to the hall and selective blasts or pedals from the organ, but never has it sounded to me more like a total masterpiece than under Mälkki’s magnificent baton.

This is a Proms piece par excellence, with that spatial effect unique to the hall and selective blasts or pedals from the organ


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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excellent review although i was left cold by the first two pieces - it must be an age thing. I have been a fan of the Planets since i heard it over 30 years ago, and ashamed to admit this is the first live performance of the piece that i have attended. Frankly it was wonderful to hear an orchestra at the top of its game and at full blast. You had to put up with the henrys' behind you - i had the sound of shuffling feet and crackling wrappers to deal with, but despite this and the baby crying at the end , it was memorable. Why would you take a baby to the proms ?

Well, I wouldn't say that Boulez exactly warmed my heart, but it was fascinating as texture. The crying came, I think, not from a baby but from a child with some kind of disability. Full marks to his father for bringing him, and to those around him for understanding the rocking, but the timing in the quietest moment was unfortunate (dad took him out, and the piece finished in essential silence).

I should also note the composer of the second work on the programme, sitting in front of me, consulting his smartphone towards the end of 'Neptune'; too. Hmm.

Well, the distracting dweebs that you mention were in the boxes (i.e. seated folks), rather than the Prommers themselves. The "total concentration" aspect would apply more to the latter. Over iPlayer, what obviously came over was the sound of the unfortunate kid, rather than the "hooray Henrys" that Jones referred to. I generally thought better of SM's interpretation of 'The Planets' rather than Jurowski's LPO rendition last year, even though "Mars" initially might have threatened to go too fast as well, but came down just on the right side of 'fast'. From seeing Chris C.'s picture of LJ, this was one occasion when she did not have her solo part memorized, which I've always known her to do in previous local appearances with contemporary works. However, given the zillions of notes in the work, that's quite understandable.

You'e right about the Arena Prommers, usually the best audience in the world. When I've been down there - and I haven't so far this season because it's been packed at each Prom I've attended - I've occasionally come across some stray tourists who aren't quite aware of concert etiquette, and it was fascinating being at a late night World Routes Prom where half the Prommers were sitting texting throughout.

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