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PROMS 2002

PROM 45: Stravinsky, Berg, Ravel, Sibelius, Christian Tetzlaff (vln), Orchestre National de Lyon, David Robertson, RAH, August 23rd 2002 (AR)

Stravinsky, Le chant du rossignol
Berg, Violin Concerto
Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte
Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 in E flat major

The Orchestre National de Lyon made its Proms debut last night under its American-born Music Director, David Robertson, and what a successful Franco-American marriage it proved to be. Robertson was able to inspire totally different styles of playing for the four diverse composers featured in the concert. What raises the Lyon orchestra to world class is their chamelion-like ability to adapt to these totally differing composers, giving to each a distinct and appropriate sound, something which the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, simply cannot do, playing Sibelius or Shostakovich through a Johann Strauss filter. Although able to adapt itself to the varied demands of its conductor, the Lyon orchestra has a distinctive sound of its own. For instance, the Lyon brass section has a raw, raucous materiality which is quite alien to the smooth Karajanised, homogenous brass sound heard in British and US symphony orchestras. The Lyon string section is quite simply exemplary, and consistently ravishing.

Stravinksky’s much underrated Song of the Nightingale was given an incisive, almost jagged rendition, with sonorous, gritty cellos and double basses. The solo flute and trumpet were played with a distinctive and sensuous stylisation with Robertson’s perfectly judged pacing allowing each instrumentalist full expression. The playing was imaginatively idiosyncratic, transcending mere virtuosity.

In the Berg Violin Concerto, ‘To the memory of an angel’, Christian Tetzlaff played with an incredible physical passion and nervous energy, floating from agitation to serenity, and quite eschewing the sentimentality that often bedevils this work. This concerto is not programme music and Tetzlaff played the work with a white hot immediacy and directness. The audience seemed entranced by Tetzlaff’s electric energy and listened in stunned silence. The orchestra accompanied with equal intensity, shifting to a more sombre palette of darker colourings and deeper tones producing sounds of a sublime melancholia and genuine pathos.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte was also given a kitsch-free interpretation of classical repose, with exquisite sounds from strings and harp, and perfectly paced, with the conductor just letting the music flow. His interpretation was all the more moving for the very simplicity and purity of his phrasing.

The Sibelius 5th Symphony was conducted in such a measured, refined and delicately transparent way that it almost dissolved into thin air in the hushed passages. Robertson’s wide dynamic range created wonderful nervous tension between the brass interjections and the tremulous string passages. The conductor treated the symphony as an organic whole, launching straight from one movement to the next without the customary breaks, giving the work a dynamic forward thrust, driving it inexorably to its intense climax. It was the weight and toughness of the string playing which gave this performance such great intensity and nervous tension, alternating between a hushed, worried whisper and an intense, shivering and icy electricity. This work demands a solid string sound and the Lyon strings excelled themselves.

This stark symphony ended with Robertson perfectly judging the length of the seemingly eternal silences between the six sledgehammer chords, creating an almost unbearable apprehension I have never heard before in this work. Indeed, I’ve never heard this symphony conducted with such intensity and subtlety.

The audience demanded an encore but the conductor replied "We have no overture...but we’ll be back"! Let us hope he keeps his word, for this was a concert to cherish.

Alex Russell


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