2015 Proms week 5

The third Proms Saturday Matinee was a rumbustious affair with the exuberant American ensemble Apollo's Fire under the guiding hand of director Jeanette Sorrell and with the marvellous Alina Ibragimova showing another facet of her talents in concerti by Vivaldi and Bach.  It was a fire cracker of a programme starting with an energetic symphony "Hamburg" by C P E Bach and ending with a scintillating reading of J S Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto (the one with the harpsichord madness) with Sorrell at the keyboard.  It really illustrated some of the best of baroque programming.  Ibragimova was wonderful - dazzling acuity of her phrasing once again shone through.

Osmo Vänskä is perhaps the pre-eminent Sibelius conductor of our time - though Leif Segerstem gets a worthy mention.  Vänskä is also perhaps the heir to Paavo Berglund in his striving approach to persistent reappraisal of these symphonies.  In concert in these columns I've recorded he's pressed the case for deeper appreciation of Sibelius 2, 3 and 4 in particular.  So the possibility of something special with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the last three symphonies was eagerly anticipated. Somehow although these were finely played and much appreciated readings, they didn't have the fire or deeper insight.  Of the three I think No 7 (a symphony Vänskä has not programmed often in UK) was most interesting.  The scherzo of the Fifth came off more effectively than the finale and although the BBC Symphony Orchestra dug deep, the core was not exposed.  It is interesting that Vänskä's slowly emerging second recorded cycle with his Minnesota orchestra is suffering the same problem - all heart but not as much passion.

Ironically, The BBC Scottish Symphony sounded the better Sibelius orchestra the night before.  In a strange triangle of coincidence the Scottish orchestra in the hands of former chief conductor, Ilan Volkov who was Vänskä's successor in 2003. Their reading of the Third symphony had an astonishing range and depth thanks to the full broad orchestral palette Volkov employed.  It was odd to hear Vänskä bettered in these works, but he was. Julius Rachlin shone new lights on the Violin concerto - his "witches dance" approach to the finale was fantastical and such a marvellous change to the the norm. Ratchin's Ysaye's Ballade was easily the best encore we'd had to that time.  Finnissy's "Janne" a tribute to Sibelius in variation form, was sadly constrained by copyright so no quotes, but it was full of those oblique references that sets the mind in urgent search for their source.  As an occasional tribute it worked well, out of that context one wonders how it would be programmed, but I hope it is.  Volkov's Sibelius Fourth was austere and canny but it was odd that a conductor so at home with modern music he seemed to struggle to leave the voices suspended in isolation.  The final 5 minutes were simply too woven, too elaborated, too joined up.

In Prom 44 the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra came to London under Daniel Barenboim and gave us generous and new fare. The programme was Schönberg's Chamber Symphony,  Beethoven's Triple Concerto with Braunstein, Kian Soltani and the conductor as soloists and after the interval, Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. Alert as ever to what tickles a Prom audiences taste buds Barenboim had is now well established ensemble tearing fearlessly in the Schönberg work - it really does benefit from a feisty approach.  Try as he might, even putting the piano in the orchestra Barenboim couldn't help his colleagues with the piano's dominance in the Triple Concerto.  Radio 3 made the point that it's under-performed but really I can't get as enthusiastic about it as some do.  It was a fine performance nonetheless.  The Tchaikovsky symphony is not one of my favourites but I was struck by Barenboim's choice of this work (preferable to the overplayed Fifth and Sixth) and his approach which was full-on romanticism and heady contrasts throughout.  It was exhilarating (as his Wagner had been three years before) to hear how he creates a climax out of nowhere - there's pacing and building but no hint of the power to come until it hits you.  Marvellous.

Safari Oramo had a programme of crowd pleasers and rarities.  Starting with a rattling account of Tapiola - in many minds the adopted Eighth symphony of Sibelius.  It was as tempestuous as anyone would want, Oramo having great ear for the full voiced Sibelius climax in this tempestuous forest of climaxes.and the BBC Symphony orchestra were on cracking form for this.  Stephen Farr was soloist in Jón Leifs' Organ Concerto a bizarre piece of Scandinavian excess.  Its starts like a Hammer horror film and proceeds with - at least at first hearing more heat than light.  It's loud and frankly too glaring.  I'm glad to have heard it but I'm not inclined to hear it again.  The RAH organ was up to the task - I'm nt sure the audience knew what had hit them.  After the interval Anders Hillborg's Beast Sampler -  menagerie in sound is a marvellous evocation of the noises animals make.  It;s keenly observed and the beastial nature is soften obvious even when the growls, chirping, whispers and twittering is gone.  There's video here of Nagano conducting it in Gothenburg - having seen it, the music making is all the more remarkable.  Nothing bestial about the last piece, Beethoven's Symphony No 7 though it has something magical about it.  I was a bit sniffy and underwhelmed by a live Eroica I saw Oramo and this orchestra do at the Barbican - it lacked drama.  This is nearly an offence in Beethoven.  I'm delighted to say there was no such problem with this reading of it's sibling.  Oram and his orchestra were on fire and his ear for detail, pacing and drama was razor sharp - moreover dance was never far away.  It was one of the best things I've heard Oramo do and a great end to the week.


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