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PROM 24 - Ben Foskett, Beethoven and Berlioz: Jörg Schneider (tenor) The Bach Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, BBC Symphony Orchestra? Susanna Mälkki, 3.8.2009 (CT) 

Ben Foskett: From Trumpet
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major
Berlioz: Te Deum

Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is not a complete stranger to the Proms. Her first appearance in 2008 was something of a last minute affair when she stepped in at short notice and with considerable success to replace Peter Eötvös, directing the Philharmonia in music by Eötvös himself, Ravel, Debussy and Vaughan Williams.

Despite its early twentieth century leanings, the Philharmonia programme might be one more readily associated with Mälkki than Beethoven and Berlioz. Her reputation as a conductor - in the UK at least - largely rests on contemporary music as a result of her work with groups such as the London Sinfonietta and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. On the wider new music scene too, it’s a reputation further galvanised by her more recent appointment as Music Director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Susanna Mälkki’s three year stint as Artistic Director of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra between 2002 and 2005 however, implies that her interests extend to a wider range of repertoire and the compelling mix of a new work by the highly promising Paris based Ben Foskett with one of Beethoven’s lesser played symphonies and the gargantuan Berlioz Te Deum made for fascinating listening on Sunday night, in what one would assume (although the programme it didn’t say so ) to be Mälkki’s debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

On the podium Mälkki cuts an elegant figure, tall, slim and on this occasion bedecked in a full length black coat that emphasised both her height and the angular clarity of her conducting gestures. Those same gestures, often accentuated by a consistent use of the left arm as marker and cue giver, are clearly rooted in her work with contemporary music, but were also to prove more than useful in the colossal forces needed for the Berlioz that occupied the second half of the concert.

To open though it was Ben Foskett’s From Trumpet that saw Mälkki in her more familiar role. The full to capacity Albert Hall had a chance to experience the work of a composer who recently made a serious mark with his 2004 Violin Concerto, championed by Clio Gould and recorded on the third of the London Sinfonietta’s “Jerwood” series of CD’s.

Emerging from initial stasis in slowly developing, increasingly intricate harmonic lines, the work is essentially a study in growth achieved through the use of one “rhythmic cell” or pulse that remains ever present. Layers of material, sometimes with the faint whiff of minimalism that Foskett employs in his own refracted form of repetitions, are brought to a timpani-dominated climax before the music fractures into woodwind-biased splinters of pulse, leading to the work ending suddenly and unexpectedly in simple, tonal unanimity.

Orchestrated with textural imagination and transparency, From Trumpet did not outstay its welcome although ultimately left the feeling that the composer had not quite reached the heights of his aforementioned Violin Concerto, a work well worth exploring in its recorded form.

Sandwiched between the complexity and ground breaking scale of the Eroica and the bold, triumphant, mentally inextinguishable strains of the Fifth, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony remains a work which whilst heard far less frequently, can refresh and invigorate in equal measure. Susanna Mälkki asserted her personality on the music almost immediately with the beautifully hushed, mysterious opening Adagio of the first movement, preceding an Allegro vivace that although occasionally losing focus, was also shot through with flashes of brilliance. A poised and elegant second movement, marked by beautifully judged dynamics and some finely observed Haydnesque touches proved a fine precursor to a characterful scherzo and a vigorous, energetically driven finale taken at a cracking tempo that clearly took risks. There were fleeting moments where it became something of a white knuckle ride but this was playing that swept the audience along in a performance that served to emphasise further the Fourth Symphony’s underrated status amongst its neighbours.

There can be no finer or grander space in which to experience the resplendence and sheer radiance of Berlioz’s Te Deum that the Royal Albert Hall. With five choirs banked above and behind the orchestra and the further visual spectacle of six trombones, four colossal sets of clashed cymbals and Simon Preston seated at the organ, Susanna Mälkki clearly revelled in the joy of the occasion, tinged as it must have been, with a certain sense of daunting trepidation.

If anxiety was there however it was in no way obvious as Mälkki launched into the work with a fervour borne of an all too rare opportunity to perform something providing a very special experience for all concerned. From the thunderous, antiphonally resounding opening chords of the opening Te Deum, to the magical unaccompanied choral close of Te ergo quaesumus, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and huge choral forces gave their all in a performance of all-round radiance, authoritatively directed from the podium.

Sheer power aside however, it was often the repose of the subdued movements that gave the performance its lasting emotional impact. The divine plea for salvation of the Dignare was conveyed with a touching sense of fervent beauty, whilst tenor and Mozart specialist Jörg Schneider allowed his prayer of pleading for Christ’s acceptance to unfold with ever increasing passion and a gentle, insistent intensity.

When the full forces of the orchestra and choirs were fully unleashed in the Judex crederis, it was with shattering force, the dark undertones menacingly punctuated in trombone pedals as the music searched inexorably for its ultimate blaze of climactic splendour and majesterial resolution. Masterfully paced and at times feverishly articulated by Mälkki, Judex crederis was the final, emphatic climax of a Prom that will linger in the memory throughout the season and provides further evidence that Susanna Mälkki’s international reputation is likely to continue to grow on both sides of the Atlantic.

Christopher Thomas 

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