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
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
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
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.