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Seen and Heard Prom Review




PROM 16 and PROM 17: CBSO/Sakari Oramo (7pm) and Manchester Camerata/Douglas Boyd (10pm), Royal Albert Hall, 27 July, 2005 (TJH)



Prom 16


Ravel: Mother Goose – suite

Dutilleux: Correspondances

Stravinsky: Scherzo Fantastique

Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition


Barbara Hannigan, soprano

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Sakari Oramo, conductor


Prom 17


Beethoven: The Creatures of Prometheus – overture

Tippett: Divertimento on Sellinger’s Round

Mozart: ‘Chi qual sia’; ‘Bella mia fiammaResta, o cara

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F major


Kate Royal, soprano

Manchester Camerata

Douglas Boyd, conductor




The best performance of Pictures at an Exhibition I ever heard was at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, with Mikhail Pletnev conducting his gifted Russian National Orchestra.  Something about hearing real live Russians play Mussorgsky’s most famous work brought home just how Russian it really is, even with Ravel’s refined, supremely Western orchestration superimposed.  It was fresh and exciting, and – at least at the Great Gate at Kiev – exuded the raw Russian power of Mussorgsky’s most monumental masterpiece, Boris Godunov.


What was great about that performance was what Wednesday’s performance – by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo – was largely missing.  Oramo’s account was altogether too polite, too cultured, too. . . well, French.  The CBSO played superbly, of course, and there were some wonderful contributions from saxophonist Alistair Parnell and tubist Alan Sinclair in particular; but if ever there was a case to be made for something being too beautiful, this was it.  Oramo could find little to flavour the music beyond a few eccentrically long pauses, which – though momentarily arresting – ultimately drained the music of what little energy it had to begin with.


Oramo was more successful dealing with Ravel the composer, however, than with Ravel the interpreter.  In the Mother Goose suite, which opened the concert, Ravel set fairy tales and bedtime stories to music of the utmost delicacy, in a score that sparkled with pretty orchestral colouration.  The CBSO put in equally splendid playing here, and Oramo’s conducting showed a great sensitivity to Ravel’s translucent textures.  But it was an odd choice to open a concert: five quiet, pastel-hued pieces were simply not enough to stop the audience from fidgeting with plastic bags, keys and programmes.  Better chosen was Stravinsky’s early Scherzo Fantastique, which opened the second half.  A piece of little consequence, perhaps, but jolly good fun.


The only real standout in this concert, though, was the London premier of Henri Dutilleux’s Correspondances.  A tightly-woven song cycle for soprano and orchestra, it showed Dutilleux to be a master of orchestration on a par with Ravel and Stravinsky.  The first setting – a poem by Prithwindra Mukherjee – opened with a melodic ground bass for timpani and the lower strings playing pizzicato.  The piquant whine of an accordion shone through the textures of the second movement, in which Barbara Hannigan’s soprano recited a letter from Solzhenitsyn to Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya.  The third and fourth songs, both entitled Gong, belonged to a different world – ritualised and abstracted, with a slowly throbbing chord pulsing through Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, at once eerie and aurally pleasing.  All of this was accomplished with great skill on Dutilleux’s part, but the last movement was on another level again: a correspondence from Vicent van Gogh to his brother Theo on the nature of art and religion, built around a passacaglia that grew in intensity as Hannigan’s vocal line crept ever higher and higher.  This movement was as much symphonic as songlike, and brought to mind the finale of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in its marriage of the two forms.  It made for a dramatic, hugely satisfying work that won a big roar of approval from the Prommers when it finished, and an even bigger one when Dutilleux himself – looking every one of his 89 years – appeared from behind a curtain to receive his well-deserved appreciation in person.


If Barbara Hannigan had struggled a little with the extremely wide-ranging vocal line in that piece, the up-and-coming young soprano Kate Royal might have fared better.  In her appearance later that evening with the Manchester Camerata and Douglas Boyd, she showed off a remarkably secure range in two of Mozart’s most complex concert arias.  In Chi qual sia and Bella mia fiamma, Royal sang with great feeling for both text and melodic contour, with just the right vocal quality and demeanour for this sort of music.  Her mid-low range had a lovely mezzo quality, but she was capable of soaring, without noticeable strain, to near-coloratura heights at the close of Bella mia fiamma.  A talent to watch.


The Camerata made for able accompanists, though something of the crispness of their playing was lost in the muddy RAH acoustic.  Small orchestras never fare well in such a huge space, especially when nearly everyone has gone home for the night, but they nevertheless gave us a marvellously energetic account of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.  Boyd drove the first movement on with great vigour, turning the exciting development section into an extended crescendo of ever-growing intensity.  The impatient woodwind ticking of the second movement was perhaps a little too forward, but the strings played pertly and with great attention to detail.  And despite the acoustic quagmire Boyd and his players were on top of every note at all times, even in the finale which started at the exhausting hour of 11pm.  It made for a lovely late night treat, and ended with smiles from conductor and audience alike.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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