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S & H Prom Review

PROM 59: Salonen, Beethoven, Brahms; Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); NDR Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg; Christoph Eschenbach (conductor); Royal Albert Hall, 3rd September 2003 (AR)


The undoubted star of this Prom was the NDR Symphony Orchestra, who’s distinct style of playing makes it one of the few international orchestras that has not yet become streamlined in its playing.

Their lengthy Prom kicked off with a disturbing performance of the UK premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Insomnia (2002). Whilst better known as a conductor rather than a composer, Salonen thinks of himself primarily as the latter. Judging by the musical invention of Insomnia he is, to my mind, a better composer than he is a conductor.

He said of his score in the programme notes: "From early in the composition process, I realised that this music was somehow about the night…I was more drawn towards the demonic, ‘dark’ aspects of the night: the kind of persistent, compulsive thoughts that run through our minds when lying hopelessly awake in the early hours. The musical processes in Insomnia have a lot in common with the psychology of a sleepless night: some thoughts become prison cells we cannot escape…"

Strikingly similar in structure to Matthias Pintsscher’s ‘en sourdine’, (PROM 57) Insomnia evokes fractured and fragmented sound-space-structures in a state of mutating flux both imploding and exploding at the same time. These ‘stressed’ sensations echo the inner turmoil of a sleepless night, where we are bombarded by conflicting thoughts and night terrors, conjuring up images and fearful forces in a constant, never-ending stream. Salonen’s score perfectly captures and presents just such a tortured night, replete with claustrophobic, congested and conflicting sound-images and sensations that pound and pulverise the mind, where only the longed-for deep sleep can provide escape from the noises, sometimes real but mostly imagined.

Salonen’s relentless music offers no escape, no solace, and

the NDR SO played this tight and tough score with authority and style as if it were already a much-played item in their repertoire; their huge forces included 5 percussion, 4 Wagner tubas, 18 tam tams of varying sizes and an alarm clock (which went off at the end making a welcome change from the usual mobile phone). As a tone poem depicting the horrors of a sleepless night it was mesmerising and brilliantly realised.

The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard describes Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto as "one of the most contemporary" of scores and his interpretation certainly made it sound so. The Allegro was stripped of rhetorical excess and sensational effects, the soloist playing with a sparse and stark directness. Orchestrally this movement was essentially string-orientated Beethoven, with woodwind, brass and timpani being rather desultory.

The woodwinds in the Adagio were far better balanced, producing a serene dialogue with the pianist, whilst the rich strings had great expressivity and depth of tone. Aimard’s playing took on a tone of floating spaciousness and melancholic reserve, dissolving the notes into a hushed and attentive hall. This was certainly one of the most deeply felt accounts I have heard of this movement.

With the concluding movement, Aimard took on an agile, even frisky style of playing, often throwing his arms high into the air, producing a pure, direct, yet subtle, almost reserved tone. Again the woodwinds and brass were rather occluded but this was a thoughtful, subtle performance of the concerto by Aimard, beautifully supported by the string section – shame about the rest of the orchestra being somewhat etiolated.

Just as Brahms’ 1st Symphony was nicknamed ‘Beethoven’s 10th’, so his second is often referred to as ‘Brahms’ Pastoral Symphony’. However, Eschenbach’s dark reading revealed it to be nothing of the kind. Indeed, Brahms regarded this work as supremely melancholic: "The score must appear with a black border", he told his publisher, Simrock – and I do not believe Brahms was being ironic.

Eschenbach’s performance of the Allegro vacillated between the sombre, mellow, and melancholic in the lyrical passages, to the urgent and dramatic, often tragic, in the climactic moments. However, Eschenbach frequently slowed down and lingered too much in the quieter, more reflective moments, often breaking the flow and forward thrust. His tendency to indulge in tempo distortions as a way of trying to create stronger contrasts of dynamics and tension ultimately seemed mannered. However, the closing passages of the movement had the right degree of buoyancy as well as a chamber-like clarity, the exchanges between horns and woodwinds radiantly shining through.

For the most part, the Adagio was laboured, again making the music often sound simultaneously fragmented and almost static, and only towards the end did the conductor bring a sense of urgency and flow to the music. The playing throughout was flawless, deeply impassioned and gracefully expressive, especially the dark brooding strings. Listening to this movement alone makes one realise that this orchestra have one of the best string sections amongst international symphony orchestras.

The final movement was by far the best conducted with Eschenbach conducting the music ‘straight’, letting it flow with a potent urgency: this was first-rate Brahms conducting, played by an orchestra that arguably plays Brahms better than any other because of its instinctive and historical understanding of the ‘Brahms style’.

For an encore we were given a breakneck performance of an easy-listening show-stopper - The Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, a concert people-pleaser that predictably brought the packed house down.

Alex Russell



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