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PROM 43: Falla, Louis Andriessen and Ravel: Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.8.2009 (BBr)

El amor brujo – three dances (1915 rev 1916)

Louis Andriessen: Haags Hakkûh (The Hague Hacking) (2008) (UK première)

Ravel: Ma Mere l'oye (Mother Goose) (complete ballet) (1908/1910 rev and orch 1911), Boléro (1928)

Louis Andriessen has never been one to compromise in his compositions. Consider Worker’s Union (1975). This, according to the composer, “…is a combination of individual freedom and severe discipline: its rhythm is exactly fixed; the pitch, on the other hand, is indicated only approximately, on a single-lined stave. It is difficult to play in an ensemble and to remain in step, sort of thing like organising and carrying on political action.” Any number of players can take part and they try and stay in unison, which, of course, can never happen over a period of time: it’s a thrilling experience in performance. Likewise, his early masterpiece De Staat (1972/1976) (which will be given by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble at the late night Prom on 28 August) pulls no punches and is as wild and free as anything he has ever written. My point is that Andriessen is his own man and has never followed trends and has created a language which is original and challenging and the audience must work when listening to this music.

This new work, Haags Hakkûh (The Hague Hacking), is not a concerto for two pianos, but neither is it an orchestral work with two pianos concertante. As usual, our perceptions are turned upside down by Andriessen as he engages in his favourite devise of hocketing, that is the distribution of “…a single musical line or melody around an ensemble, meaning that successive notes are rapidly exchanged between different performers.” (Robert Adlington in the Proms programme book), the two pianists becoming a “single super–pianist” (Adlington again) and not, as in a conventional Concerto, an über–pianist. Starting from a quiet and restrained base, everything here is withdrawn, Andriessen builds his structure gradually, until we reach a section of huge chords and the original melody is “deconstructed” (Andriessen’s word) by everyone. The ending is as magical as anything Andriessen has written.

A fairly large orchestra, including two percussionists who sit between the winds and strings, is used with supreme care and thought and his discreet use of the percussion section could teach the other three composers who delivered premières heard so far this season – Wigglesworth, Jarrell and Chin – a few things about how not to disfigure the orchestral landscape with unnecessary bangings and scrapings.

This is a marvelous addition to the small repertoire of works for two pianos and orchestra but it is a difficult work both to play (actually, it must be a nightmare for the pianists) and to listen to, but it will make more sense, and its purpose will become clearer, the more times we hear it. Therefore, I urge everyone to tune in to the archived recording of the concert on the BBC iPlayer and give it a few hearings. This is real music which will repay the study.

The Labèque sisters were totally in control throughout the performance, leading the way, but never dominating the textures, and the Philharmonia, under its new chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was magnificent. The sisters and Salonen gave the première in January this year and we were lucky enough to hear a performance where the music has truly settled into their musical thinking and the logic of the piece was therefore clearly focused for us.

The evening started with a rather lack lustre performance of three dances from Falla’s El amor brujo – as the whole ballet plays for little over half and hour I wonder why we were offered these bleeding chunks – but the second half could hardly have been bettered. The complete ballet score of Ma Mere l'oye (One in the Eye for Mother, as my dear master at college always insisted on calling it) was a joy. It’s not often that the whole score, complete with transitions and interludes, is given – it’s easier to simply give the orchestral version of the well known piano suite – and with a performance of such limpid beauty as this it’s hard to understand why. There was some gorgeous woodwind playing – especially from Kenneth Smith, Christopher Cowie and Jill Crowther (flute, oboe and cor anglais respectively) – and, thanks to Salonen’s acute ear, Hugh Webb’s harp was always clearly audible – a very rare occurrence.

It was, perhaps, a touch unfair to follow this wonderful fairytale grotto of a piece with Boléro but if a big finish was ever called for then this is the work. Salonen chose a tempo ever so slightly faster than we have become used to but this didn’t worry me unduly, what was slightly disturbing was that in a few of the early wind statements of the theme the players rushed through the semiquaver movement and tried to push on the tempo; fortunately Salonen kept a firm baton on the proceedings and never allowed the music to run away with itself. If there was one disappointment it was that the key change at the end didn’t surprise and, yes it is supposed to, disturb the audience, thus the ending was merely an orchestral collapse rather than the musical apocalypse it’s supposed to be.

The Philharmonia played very well and responded to Salonen wholeheartedly. It bodes well for their future work together.

Bob Briggs  


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