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 PROM 56 – Saunders, Chopin, Strauss: Lang Lang (Piano), Staatskapelle Dresden, Fabio Luisi (conductor), BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London 27.8.2009 (GDn)

Rebecca Saunders
: traces (UK premiere of revised version)
Chopin: Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor
R. Strauss: Ein Alpensinfonie

He’s not shy, Lang Lang. The applause that greeted him to the Albert Hall stage was apoplectic, even by Proms standards, but he is clearly used to such receptions. And the similar eruption that followed his performance of Chopin’s Second Concerto occasioned his parading up and down the stage, waiving, blowing kisses to the choir stalls and ultimately acquiescing with an inevitable Chopin encore. All this was in stark contrast to Fabio Luisi, the Dresden Staatskapelle’s unassuming music director, whom Lang Lang led round the stage, demonstrating to the conductor how classical music’s megastars handle a crowd.

The performance of the concerto itself was similarly piano led. Given the considerable prestige of the Dresden Staatskapelle, it was a shame that the concerto in question did so little to showcase their talents. Lang Lang’s talents, by contrast, were evident throughout, his precision, his power, and above all his bravura theatricality. His default articulation for this music is a weighty legato, which in combination with his precise passage work makes Chopin’s technical demands seem all the more intense. Lang Lang also has a habit of interpreting the score’s articulation and dynamic markings with a fastidious, bordering on comical, pedantry. Isolated staccato bass notes placed beneath legato treble range passages are stabbed out to create the maximum textural contrast, and ornaments are executed with a firm resolve, as if integral rather than decorative to the melodic lines. Subtleties of dynamics and articulation are occasionally employed - swells around ornamented cadences, for example, or dramatic crescendos into descending bass runs - but these details are strictly subsidiary to the spectacular whole, with Lang Lang’s fireworks and showmanship carrying the performance.

All this was in stark contrast to the opening work, an altogether more modest affair from Rebecca Saunders. The Staatskapelle has recently instigated a ‘Capell-Compositeur’ scheme, one of Fabio Luisi’s first enterprises on taking up the reins in 2007, and Rebecca Saunders has been appointed to the position for the coming season. Her first work for the orchestra is a revised version of traces, the original commissioned by the Northern Sinfonia in 2006. It comes with some weighty philosophical baggage; quotations from Italo Calvino and Samuel Beckett preface the score, and ideas from both authors about the mediating role of words in subjective perceptions of reality are apparently the basis its conception. Silence plays an important role in Saunders’ music, interspersing sporadic and often relatively static events. Timbre is fundamental to her approach, with complex, almost spectral, harmonies forming the basis of each event, not static but each with its own microcosm of growth and decay, and isolated by a frame of silence. Saunders is British by birth but has lived in Berlin since 1997. As befits an émigré composer, her style is difficult to locate. She studied with Wolfgang Rihm in the early 1990s, and the breathy, angular woodwind harmonies of his orchestral writing are apparent. Distant echoes of Ligeti’s string clusters demonstrate his continuing significance to new music in Germany. Decisive (and again usually isolated) percussion strokes also call to mind a number of Scandinavians, especially Magnus Lindberg, whose orchestral scores are so often underpinned by similar dull, weighty thuds from bass drums and muted gongs.

The second half saw the Staatskapelle on more familiar territory with Strauss’ Alpensinfonie. An unusual performance though, at least for British ears. The orchestra has a long relationship with this work and has clearly established its own idiosyncratic interpretation. This is evident from the start, with the notes of the bassoon’s descending minor scale emphatically slurred into iambic pairs. Each subsequent woodwind solo took a similar approach, displaying a thorough familiarity with the music but adding an interpretive twist. These details shone through magnificently, with the clarity of the orchestra’s tone more than a match for the Albert Hall’s emulsifying acoustic. The only real let down was the brass. Having the fourth trombone double contrabass was a nice touch (although it raises complex authenticity issues), but dispensing with the off-stage brass in favour of muted onstage players reduced both the dramatic and the acoustical effect. (That disappointment had been anticipated, as the programme carried a disclaimer that the orchestra had been doing it this way since Rudolf Kempe.) The nasal trumpets also lacked both gravitas and accuracy, this perhaps a result of their narrow-bore German instruments, although the trumpet sections at Vienna and Berlin both manage weight and precision on similar. Tempi were fast and strict, build-ups and climaxes left to speak for themselves without the support of emphatic rubato. And the string sound was clear and decisive, the phrasing angular and precise, and the supporting textures, especially the tremolos at the summit beginning and ending with a surprisingly blunt abruptness.

An unusual Alpensinfonie then, and clearly the result of a long, long relationship between orchestra and work. In fact, they have been playing it for 94 years, since giving the premiere under the composer’s baton in 1915. It is even dedicated to the orchestra, so they are well within their rights to interpret it exactly as they please.

Gavin Dixon


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