Sunday 10 August 2014

Prom 28 - D'Orazio/BBC SO/Oramo: Beethoven, Brett Dean, and Stravinsky, 7 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Egmont, op.84: Overture
Brett Dean – Electric Preludes
Stravinsky – Oedipus Rex
Francesco D’Orazio (electric violin)

Oedipus – Allan Clayton
Jocasta – Hilary Summers
Creon – Juha Uusitalo
Tiresias – Brindley Sherratt
Messenger – Duncan Rock
Shepherd – Samuel Boden
Speaker – Rory Kinnear

BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

I admit that I came to this concert mostly with the second half in mind. It was a more than pleasant surprise, then, also to find a good deal more to enjoy before the interval than I had expected. It is not, of course, that I do not think the world of the Egmont Overture, but I have increasingly become weary of the state of present-day orchestral Beethoven performance. (Oddly, the problems bedevilling symphonic Beethoven seem less apparent or at least far less widespread in solo and chamber music.) Sakari Oramo’s account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then, came as a breath of fresh air. The introduction was full of suspense and foreboding, unfolding at a tempo that simply sounded ‘right’ (which is not, of course, to say that another could not). Already there was a proper sense of the mystery of Beethovenian development. The transition to the main Allegro was well handled, and throughout there was a good sense of formal dynamism. Characterful woodwind and forthright brass (admittedly, not always ideally precise) added a great deal. The ‘Victory Symphony’ at the end – I know that it is not actually entitled as such here – was perhaps a touch harried, but if a shortcoming, it was one that was readily forgiven. This was a real Beethoven performance.

Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes, for electric violin and orchestral strings, received its first Proms performance, Francesco D’Orazio joining the orchestra. In six ‘character pieces’, some of them continuous, Dean’s work explores, in his words, ‘the intersection between high instrumental virtuosity of a “classical” nature on the one hand and sound-worlds that are only possible with electronics on the other, all commented upon by an essentially “unplugged” string chamber orchestra’. As a summary, that seemed to me to tally very well with what I heard. The first movement, ‘Abandoned Playground’ is scurrying, at times almost filmic in quality and ‘atmosphere’, though perhaps a little repetitive. Despite its inspiration by indigenous painting from around Papunya, in Australia’s Northern Territory, the second movement sounded – at least, impressionistically, to me – more ‘abstract’, though perhaps matters would be different if one knew the art.  The short ‘Peripetea’ that follows, fast and highly rhythmical, had a sense, both as work and performance, of providing what it says, a dramatic turning-point. A slow movement, ‘The Beyond of Mirrors’, seemed more fully to emphasise electronic sounds, and yet at the same time to engage in ‘traditional’ violin and string fantasy. So too, in another mood, did the following ‘Perpetuum mobile’, which put me in mind almost of electric Prokofiev (the finale to the Second Violin Concerto). Its lengthy cadenza seemed perhaps to outstay its welcome, but there could be no gainsaying, here or elsewhere, D’Orazio’s command of technique, idiom, and expression. Likewise, the BBC SO sounded reinvigorated under its new Principal Conductor. The final ‘Berceuse’ traces an unhurried path from a dark, almost growling opening to quiet ecstasy – or so it sounded here in what seemed to me an excellent performance.

There followed an equally excellent performance of Oedipus Rex, in which the singularity of this ‘opera-oratorio’ announced itself as only it can, whether through form, language, or that oppressive atmosphere engendered by the pervasive minor third and its implications. The orchestra and Oramo continued to be on fine form, now joined by soloists, men’s voices from both the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus, and Rory Kinnear, a splendid narrator throughout, declamatory without a hint of the excessive ‘ac-tor-li-ness’ which often comes into play here. Stravinsky’s opening chorus was splendidly attacked by chorus and orchestra alike, truly plunging us into the drama. Motor rhythms and ostinato made one all the more aware than usual of Poulenc’s blatant plagiarism in Dialogues des Carmélites (not that Stravinsky, given his record, need have disapproved). The aggression of neo-Classicism was as apparent in Oedipus’s ensuing claim of deliverance as in, say, the Octet; there is nothing placid about this æsthetic. I especially liked the clearly questioning choral ‘Quid fakiendum, Oedipus, ut liberemur?’ There soon followed what for me was the only real blot on the performance, the dry, wooden solo from Juha Uusitalo’s Creon, not helped by a pronounced vocal wobble. An intriguing, quasi-liturgical sense of versicle and response between ensuing chorus and Oedipus (‘Solve, solve, solve!’ ‘Pollikeor divinabo!’ etc.) swiftly compensated. Brindley Sherratt’s Tiresias sounded ‘old’ in character but without detriment to his fine musical delivery, precise and clear of tone, declamatory yet most definitely ‘sung’. The oddness of Stravinsky’s tenor writing constantly forced itself upon one’s attention, at least as much here as in, say, The Flood, but Allan Clayton coped – indeed, more than coped – very well.

The second act brings the extraordinary entrance of Jocasta. I mean it as no disrespect to the rest of the cast when I say that Hilary Summers truly stole the show with her unmistakeable contralto, somehow wonderfully archaic in a Mediterranean sense. Stylistically, she sounded just right, ‘operatic’ in Stravinsky’s utterly personal way (all the more so, the more ‘impersonal’ he might try to be). Oramo’s urgent yet spacious pacing seemed well-nigh ideal here, whilst choral imprecations of Fate hammered home their ritualistic point. Jocasta being joined by Oedipus, we heard what registered wonderfully as both parody and instantiation of the operatic duet. Indeed, it was a strength of the performance as a whole that issues of genre seemed, in unforced fashion, to come so strongly to the fore. Duncan Rock’s arrival as Messenger had one wishing he might have sung Creon too: his was a thoughtful, expressive performance, as was that of Samuel Boden as Shepherd, whose sappy tenor dealt so well with the vocal awkwardness of Stravinsky’s writing as almost to vanquish it. (It should not be entirely vanquished, of course, since it is a crucial part of the work and its ‘expressive’ – to use a loaded word in any Stravinskian context – power.) The weird jauntiness of the chorus, ‘Mulier in vestibulo’ led inexorably, as in performance it must, to the stone death of ‘Tibi valedico, Oedipus, tibi valedico’. Oramo and his forces had much to be proud of in this concert.