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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 28: Hillborg, Sibelius, Stenhammar, Sibelius, Alfvén, Bartók Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo); Joshua Bell (violin); Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert. Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday, August 5, 2004 (CC)
Swedish composer Anders Hilborg was born in 1954. He has previously been heard at the Proms (memorably, in 1997 in a concert immediately after Princess Diana’s death.) A happier occasion, then, for the Royal Stockholm PO to give the UK premiere of Exquisite Corpse, a 15-minute orchestral work. The title comes from a Surrealist parlour game of juxtaposing words to form a sentence, according to pre-formed rules. One of the first examples was ‘La cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’, and Hillborg’s piece takes its name from this (‘Exquisite Corpse’), written in 2002 and revised the following year. Of course the technique could be (and was) applied to collaborative drawings and paintings, but it is Hillborg that chose to pay a sort of musical tribute to this process, imagining a collage of his own music that someone else might construct, mixing it in with quotations from Starvinsky, Ligeti and Sibelius (explicitly the latter’s Seventh Symphony, a nice link to later in the programme.)
The work emerges from silence (almost a cliché), yet what distinguishes Hillborg is his ear for sonority: lines glowed, woodwind shimmered. Some lines raised an eyebrow by sounding like Scandic Messiaen, but running through the whole was a disturbing, dark anger. It is a powerful work that demands re-hearing.
Rounding off the first half was Sibelius’ ever-popular Violin Concerto. Joshua Bell is a Prom favourite, and Bell has recorded this work (see below) so he is no stranger to the score. But it was Gilbert and his orchestra that impressed. Gilbert was in no mood to dawdle - Sibelius can so easily sprawl - and the results were ear-opening. The first movement flowed inevitably onwards. Bell was his usual mobile self, leaving the impression of something superficial, yet his cadenza was simply gripping.
Bell’s warm tone was entirely appropriate for the slow movement, yet his finale was squeaky-clean, all-American and ultimately un-Sibelian. Hardly a surprise that the gestures of the coda seemed even emptier than usual …
Anne Sofie von Otter is a real star and to hear her in her home repertoire was a rare privilege. She has an innate musicianship, intelligence, not to mention a sense of humour! Her selection of songs by Stenhammar, Sibelius and Alfvén was delightful. Stenhammar’s ‘From Idylls and Epigrams of J. L Runeborg’, Op. 4 is an early work, dating from 1893 (the composer was born in 1871.) Stenhammar’s scoring is masterly, as was von Otter’s reading. She placed words perfectly, the supporting delicate textures expertly presented under Gilbert. Three Sibelius songs followed, ‘The Echo-Nymph’ (Op. 72 No. 4); ‘On a veranda by the shore’ (Op. 38 No. 2); ‘Black Roses’ Op. 36 No. 1. Op. 72 mirrors the simplicity of late Sibelius, and the first song certainly wafted along magically, von Otter floating some notes beautifully. The darkly dramatic second offering made fair contrast while the dark-tinged final song brought an imposing close. Finally the magnificently delicate ‘The Forest Sleeps’ (Alfvén) made for a harp-flecked conclusion. Only… it wasn’t. Von Otter offered Petersen-Berger and Grieg to the delight of the Prommers.
Gilbert clearly meant business for Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite (1918-24, rev. 1926-31), starting before the applause had died down. But in comparison with Boulez in his many performances, Gilbert sounded distinctly watered-down, and it was true that throughout things could have been grittier. Despite some excellent individual contributions (notably from the solo bassoon), this was lacklustre and earth-bound Bartok. A shame.
Hillborg: Liquid Marble (Ondine ODE1006-2)
Sibelius Violin Concerto Bell; LAPO/Salonen (Sony Classical SK65949)
Otter: Wings in the Night (DG 449 189-2)
Bartók: Miraculous Mandarin (Complete) Chicago SO/Boulez (DG447 747-2)