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 PROM 63: Xenakis, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich: Leigh Melrose (baritone), Colin Currie (percussion) BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson (conductor), BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London 2.9.2009 (CR)

The opening Xenakis piece, Nomos gamma, began with the disappointment that the 98 musicians were not, as the programme notes suggested, placed ’around and among the listeners’ but were instead placed in the Arena, leaving enough space just for a few Prommers to stand amongst them. Presumably this was an example of Health and Safety coming into play, but given the potential of a space such as the Royal Albert Hall, this was a shame. Nevertheless, the ‘in the round’ performance displayed an impressive-looking circular orchestra, with Robertson surrounded by musicians on all sides. The layout allowed for some spectacular antiphonal effects, particularly with the six drummers as their sound moved around the circle.

Xenakis was a troubled man, with his wartime exploits in the Resistance and subsequent permanent physical (and presumably also mental) scarring indelibly making their way into his music. In Nomos gamma he requires the instrumentalists to play without vibrato, and his direct language has a raw energy which is permeated by a sense of deep-seated anger. He explores textural writing but for many his music can be impenetrable and noisy. I could not help but notice a few members of the RAH audience who were clearly there for the Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. Nomos gamma was undoubtedly well performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the drummers were particularly enticing. Robertson controlled well, giving clear direction even to those sitting behind him. The microtonal elements of the language interested me most, with some satisfying clusters and individual parts seeming to come in and out of focus with each other. The directness of Xenakis’s music was for me initially invigorating, although I found the constant intensity and lack of variety to be a little wearing.

Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead is based on a Böcklein painting, and uses the Dies Irae as a central ‘death’ motif. This is a deeply moving work, which has the potential to reach the limits of emotion, but I felt that this performance didn’t quite get there. The opening tempo seemed a little too fast, and the overall performance was a little clinical (perhaps as a result of going from the inexpression of the Xenakis). Robertson’s turbulent climaxes were played with conviction, and the music was accurately performed.

is a dramatic work which demands attention from its opening notes. Focussing, like Rachmaninov’s work, on the subject of death, this piece for amplified baritone, percussion and orchestra sets texts by Homer and Sappho. This was a spectacular performance by baritone Leigh Melrose, who handled the extremes of register (much of the baritone part lies within the soprano range) and the complex demands of Xenakis’s writing with impressive vocal dexterity and a convincingly theatrical delivery. Fellow solist Colin Currie’s percussion playing was equally impressive, bringing Xenakis’s scintillating use of rhythm to the fore.

Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony has the feel of a chamber symphony, with its relatively small orchestral forces and short duration. Soviet Russia expected this symphony to be a victorious work in celebration of Stalin, along the lines of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, but Shostakovich’s work is, as the programme notes suggested, closer to Haydn than Beethoven. Humour pervades this work, with a sense of forced celebration. This was a good performance with some wonderfully executed woodwind solos (especially from principal bassoonist Julie Price). Robertson’s interpretation was a straight-forward reading, lacking perhaps the oppositional sense of struggle often associated with Shostakovich, but possessing a clarity and cleanness in the performance which allowed Shostakovich’s music space to breathe and to sparkle.

Carla Rees


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