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S & H Prom Review

PROM 57: Matthias Pintscher, Anton Bruckner, Frank Peter Zimmerman (violin) BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Royal Albert Hall, 2nd September 2003 (AR)


Ironically it is often the case that the most badly attended concerts turn out to be some of the best. This was certainly the case in the Royal Albert Hall with tonight’s Prom, which according to the BBC Press Office was only 20 per cent capacity.

Throughout the evening it was a sheer delight just to watch the BBC SO’s principle guest conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste who has a style which is elegant, graceful and economic, almost shy and introverted, but nevertheless totally in control of his forces, maintaining a crystalline, steady beat.

This was the UK premiere of ‘en sourdine’ – music for violin and orchestra (2002) - by the German composer Matthias Pintscher (born 1971) and dedicated to its Prom soloist, Frank Peter Zimmermann who gave the work its first performance in February of this year with the Berlin Philharmonic under Peter Eötvos. The score’s title ‘en sourdine’ means ‘with mute’ and both the soloist and orchestra are required to play in a muted fashion. In the Concise Oxford Dictionary the word ‘mute’ means: ‘Silent; not emitting articulate sound; not giving tongue; of person or animal: dumb; not expressed in speech…’

In fact the soloist and orchestra produced ‘mutant’ sounds which came across as alien to the human ear, with the brass and percussion making dumb animal noises while the soloist’s sour sounds mutated away from the human: I have never before heard sounds like those produced by Zimmerman. The soloist played with a hybrid technique, taking the sounds of his instrument beyond the known, beyond the human; there are no words to describe those abject voices that Zimmerman produced, and I am certain that they have never been heard before on the violin.

His melting playing spoke with an alien tongue that communicated viscerally, by-passing the brain, with his bow becoming a razor cutting through your eardrum. Sometimes his phrasing was disconcertingly jagged and fractured, deconstructing already splintered sounds into even smaller shards. After this performance I was left with a tingling numbed sensation: Zimmerman’s eerie playing goes straight to the nervous system. This was a disturbing, even unnerving performance by a brilliant soloist, backed by superb playing from the BBC SO, all guided by Saraste’s hyper-sensitive conducting.

In stark contrast to the first offering, after the interval we were given Bruckner’s majestic 5th Symphony in B flat major (1875/6).

The opening was hushed and serenely sustained with Saraste getting the metre of the music just right, the first brass entries having great weight and grandeur. From the Allegro on the conductor took a very broad but highly concentrated view of this colossal movement, mastering the architecture and orchestral balance to perfection. The subdued string passages had a sense of hazy distance and melancholic grace, pierced by the noble sonority of the brass.

Throughout this broadly paced movement the playing was sensitive and concentrated, with the conductor’s control of the dynamics never allowing the brass to swamp the rest of the orchestra. Every thread of the score could be heard even in the most fervid tutti moments. Indeed, Saraste’s emphasis on orchestral clarity allowed the pointed woodwinds to come through in a manner very reminiscent of Klemperer. The conductor also understood the special dynamics of the Royal Albert Hall, allowing telling spaces to punctuate the stabbing blocks of sound from the brass section. These broad pauses are as important as the notes and Saraste judged them to perfection. The concluding passages of the movement had great tension and intensity without sounding heavy or forcedly melodramatic.

The opening of the Adagio, with its stark contrast between the strings’ slow pizzicato triplets and the solemn four-in-a-bar oboe theme, was hauntingly played and perfectly paced, never sounding turgid, as it so often can. The second theme, with its lush carpet of thick textured strings, had great weight and warmth. As the movement progressed the music became more frantic, with the conductor injecting a sense of urgency and tragedy into the music.

The Scherzo had the right swaggering lilt and glib humour emphasising the heavy-footed Austrian peasant country dance.

Saraste rightly made the music sound sinister, heavy and grotesque and this movement is surely Bruckner at his most fantastical (and he himself referred to this symphony as his ‘Fantastic’). The BBC SO responded to the conductor’s manic interpretation, playing as if they themselves were possessed by a drunken madness: a terrifying experience.

Like the first movement the last was broad, measured and weighty whilst also being graceful and chamber-like, with all the orchestral details coming through, even in the heavy brass passages. The opening solo for clarinet was humorously pointed and directly prefigures Till’s cheeky woodwind theme from Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. This was followed by weighty strings played with great urgency and panache. As Saraste progressed with his rock-steady tempo he slowly increased the tension, urgency and mania in the music, unleashing ever more power from his orchestra, until the concluding overwhelming passages had the full BBC SO awash in a blaze of glorious sound. The only thing that let this performance down was the woolly timpani playing of John Chimes.

This was certainly one of most ‘musical’ and ‘inspired’ Proms to date and it was a tragedy the turn out was so low. I highly recommend you listen to the re-broadcast of this Prom on Thursday 4th September at 2.05 pm on BBC Radio 3.

Alex Russell



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