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Seen and Heard Prom Review

PROM 57: Rossini, Debussy, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, World Orchestra for Peace, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 27 August 2005 (AR)


The World Orchestra for Peace, founded in 1995 by the late Sir Georg Solti to act as music's 'ambassadors for peace', is composed of the crème de la crème from the leading world orchestras – 12 of last night’s violin section were themselves orchestra leaders. The Orchestra currently features musicians of 70 orchestras from 30 countries and was conducted baton free by its current Music Director, Valery Gergiev, as part of its 'Credit Suisse Tour 2005'. Watching Gergiev’s highly idiosyncratic conducting style reminded me very much of Wilhelm Furtwängler's rather floppy, rag doll, semaphore motions. Yet like Furtwängler’s conducting, no gesture was superficial and every one was incisive and economic.


Their Prom began with a beautifully phrased and broadly paced performance of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The opening cello solo, played by Sandro Laffanchini, of the La Scala Milan Orchestra, sang with a radiant warmth and set the murmuring mood of the opening to perfection. In the storm sections the brass were in their element and played with great panache, whilst the gallop to the finish was intense without ever sounding bombastic. Gergiev’s genius was to make this well known work sound newly minted and cliché free.


Debussy’s Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune was given a lush, voluptuous performance with Gergiev making the score sound closer to Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstacy, and the horns having an added darkness rarely heard before. The flute solo of Timothy Hutchins, from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, was eloquent, refined and appropriately atmospheric. What was sadly lacking was a sense of mystery, delicacy and the shimmering evanescent quality so essential to this mesmerising score.


Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was commissioned  at the personal request of Gergiev to compose a new piece for the BBC. Named Helix, the work refers to its spiralling and imploding structure reminding one very much of Varèse and Xenakis. This Prom world premiere was given an intense and highly expressive performance and had a hypnotic effect over orchestra and audience alike. The orchestra played the score with absolute conviction and authority as if it was well known to them. One striking feature was the constant, impatient, nervous tapping from the timpani. Whilst the clock time of the score ran for around nine minutes its musical time runs for several seconds because the musical time was constantly severed by these timpani taps which seem to decapitate the clock time of the score. The structure is ‘de-composed’ in time, being torn apart from itself and thus negating any sense of narrative time as a linear progression of clock time. The composer said the structure of his score was like: “a curve that lies on a cone and makes a constant angle with the straight lines parallel to the base of the cone”.


Gergiev closed the first half with a glowing account of Wagner’s Prelude to Act One of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This briskly paced and beautifully balanced account with all the orchestral details coming through proved to me that Gergiev is a first rate Wagner conductor.


Gergiev and his fabulous forces concluded their official programme with an incandescent and iridescent performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade Op. 35 with every member shining through with perfect clarity  – indeed this was as close to a chamber performance as one could imagine with the orchestral textures often sounding translucent. The seductive solo violin part representing Scheherazade was played throughout with finesse and charm by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s leader Rainer Küchl.


Gergiev did not just treat this popular score as a mere showcase to show off his orchestra but gave us a much more trenchant and profound reading, conducting the four movements almost in the grand manner of a late Bruckner symphony: notably the broadly paced open brass punctuations in The Sea and Sindbad’s ship and the concluding Sea and Shipwreck sections and the wide dynamic contrasts between soft strings and stern brass. This was a performance of contrasting colour and mood with Gergiev painting each scene with particular orchestral hues matching the mood of the music in each movement. Indeed: this was a highly ‘musical’ and sensitive performance of a work that can often sound merely kitsch in concert under lesser conductors. The playing of The World Orchestra for Peace was spellbindingly superlative: each player’s individual character constantly shining through yet playing in absolute unison and total rapport.


For an encore we were given the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night's Dream and the woodwind were given a chance to dance – and dance they did!


After which Gergiev informed an enthusiastic capacity audience that he would perform Eric Coates's Knightsbridge March – an unusual but refreshing choice, familiar to older promenaders as the signature tune to BBC radio’s In Town Tonight programme in the 1940’s.  The piece was performed with breezy, bustling flamboyance, with the percussion section well to the fore, bringing a rapturous ovation from a packed house. 



Alex Russell



Further listening:


Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade Op. 35, Borodin: Symphony No. 2; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Kirill . Kondrashin (conductor): Philips 464 735-2.

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