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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 30: Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Sibelius, Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2005 (TJH)



Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini

Mahler – Rückert-Lieder

Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 in E flat major



Friday night’s Prom, by the visiting Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, was originally to be conducted by Neeme Järvi.  Frequently indisposed these days, Järvi was forced to pull out due to ill-health, leaving the podium to Deutsche Grammophon’s latest signing, the 24-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.  Although it was necessary to cancel Tubin’s 8-minute Toccata as a result of the last-minute replacement, it was heartening to hear a brand new piece in its place, and such a long and complex one at that.


In fact, Nicholas Kenyon was on hand to conduct the new work, a Concerto Grosso for Arena and Audience.  To the incessant drone of some mysterious feedback emanating from a faulty speaker somewhere in the gallery, members of the arena crowd exchanged witty banter with the rest of the audience, occasionally silenced by the appearance of Mr Kenyon.  The hum was eventually supplanted by an affectionate homage to Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I, much to the delight of the packed house; during the recapitulation, however, the audience began to tire as the noise grew a little wearisome.  Up to this point the orchestra had sat bemusedly upon the platform; Kenyon now directed them to leave and come back again later, with the audience instructed to follow suit.  Though the piece clearly owed much to John Cage’s aleatoric – and indeed audience-participatory – work, there was a pleasing freshness to it and Kenyon received a big round of applause for his part.  At fifty-five minutes, though, I cannot foresee a repeat performance taking place any time soon.


After this inspired bit of chaos, and an hour later than originally scheduled, the orchestra and their rightful conductor returned to the platform for a searing account of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.  Although Dudamel tended to shape the details a little more than the big picture, there were some jolly exciting moments in the first storm episode, and indeed its concluding counterpart.  As that first storm abated, Urban Claesson’s clarinet filled the hall with some of the most serenely beautiful woodwind playing I’ve heard; his take on Francesca’s theme blossomed into a hot-blooded Romantic affair as her lover Paolo appeared in the strings.  It was an awfully good performance, and an exemplary Proms debut – one of which Dudamel should be proud.


If Tchaikovsky’s brand of Romanticism came naturally to him, however, Mahler’s certainly did not: there was little in the way of affection or depth in his conducting of the five Rückert-Lieder.  Singing Friedrich Rückert’s words was the great mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, but she too seemed unable to bring much in the way of sincerity to these wonderful, underrated pieces.  Her performance was mannered and rather jarring in places, her phrasing unnaturally broken up by sudden changes of dynamic, particularly towards the top of her range.  Her tendency to start every high note as softly as possible seemed glib and showy, and ultimately distracted from Mahler’s artistry.


By the time we got to Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony it was already quarter to ten in the evening, and the orchestra, though they had not played in the “new” work, were visibly tired.  Dudamel’s conducting was altogether too sentimental for Sibelius, and the scherzando second-half of the first movement wasn’t nearly as exciting as it should have been.  But energy-levels picked up after an equally tepid Andante: the buzzing opening of the finale produced some strongly accented playing from the Gothenburg strings and it was hard not to get caught up in the great swaying horn melody that is one of Sibelius’ most memorable inventions.  If the many changes of tempo were not quite perfectly handled, Dudamel drove the orchestra on to a very satisfying conclusion, with the six gigantic chords delivered crisply and decisively.  Not a great performance then, but certainly a good one, and one for which Dudamel was rightly encored.  Whether he will prove to be the wunderkind Deutsch Grammophon hopes he is, only time will tell; in the meantime, his should be a career well worth keeping an eye on.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff


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