Friday, 8 August 2014

Prom 28: Beethoven, Brett Dean, Stravinsky

Sakari Oramo
Sakari Oramo
Stravinsky Oedipus Rex, Beethoven, Brett Dean; BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 7 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Prom 28: Oramo's first Proms outing - Stravinsky's monumental opera-oratorio in an eclectic programme

In typical Proms fashion, Thursday 7 August 2014's Prom 28 saw Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex performed in an eclectic programme which started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture and also featured Electric Preludes by the contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean. Sakari Oramo, making the first of his Proms appearances this year, conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus and Francesco D'Orazio was the soloist in the Brett Dean. Soloists in the Stravinsky included Allan Clayton, Hilary Summers, Juha Uusitalo, Brindley Sherratt, Duncan Rock, Samuel Boden and Rory Kinnear.

Beethoven's overture is the best known of the incidental music that he wrote in 1810 for Goethe's play Egmont (has anyone, I wonder, ever revived the play with Beethoven's complete music). The play concerns the struggle for freedom in 16th century Netherlands, led by Count Egmont. The concluding section of the overture is based on the Victory Symphony which represents Egmont's vision of their eventual freedom. After a slow and dramatic start, with fine woodwind solos, Oramo and the orchestra gave us a finely controlled performance with a steady feeling of build. Throughout Oramo kept things on a tight rein, and you felt the tension, drama and shimmering excitement. I had a couple of worries, though. With the large body of strings, the balance with the woodwind did not seem ideal and in the louder tutti moments, the strings tended to obscure the wind. And the ending, though controlled, seemed a little too buttoned up and I wanted the final bars to let go a bit more.

Francesco D'Orazio
Francesco D'Orazio
Brett Dean's Electric Preludes was written in 2011-2012 for his friend Richard Tognetti to perform on the electric violin. This is a new instrument, where the instrument functions very much like an electric guitar with the sound requiring amplification and providing scope for a wide range of electro-acoustic effects. The instrument was also equipped with extra strings, taking the sound into the cello territory. Dean has already written a concerto for the conventional violin and this new piece pits the Electric Violin against a string orchestra in six movements with evocative titles, Abandoned Playground, Topography - Papunya, Peripeteia, The Beyonds of Mirrors, Perpetuum Mobile and Berceuse.

Abandoned Playground refers to photographs of abandoned playgrounds which Dean discovered. The movement started with quiet chromatic meanderings in the string orchestra interrupted by harsh chords from the soloist, Francesco D'Orazio. The sound of the soloist was heard from the loud speakers which gave it a rather diffused, artificial feel and it was often difficult to connect what we heard with what we saw. As the piece developed, both strings and soloist intensified their playing so that we ventured briefly into screaming fidgety music, before the opening returned, quietly eerie, mysterious and odd. Topography - Papunya refers to art produced by painters from Papunya in Australian Northern Territory. It started with slow eerie high notes in the soloist, joined by almost inaudible violins from the orchestra. There were lots of electro-acoustic effects from the solo, and I was uncertain how many of these were controlled by D'Orazio and how many by the engineers at the sound desk, who were following proceedings with a copy of the score. As the drama built, the orchestra suddenly evaporated leaving a high stuttering solo. Perpeteia is Greek for turning point in drama, and was here a short angry solo. The Beyonds of Mirrors refers to a line in a poem by Rilke, here high, quiet slithering strings were complemented by a high whistling in the soloist. Frankly for me, this evoked not Rilke, but the wonderful children's show The Clangers where the animals talk to each other in whistling. As the movement intensified with had a crazy sounding cadenza-like moment for the soloist. Perpetuum Mobile was just that, a rather angry edgy perpetual motion., leading to the cadenza proper before for the quiet Berceuse. This might have been quiet but it wasn't soothing, instead the movement was darkly mysterious with a quietly unsettling end.

Dean's work explored the endless possibilities for variations of textures that his combination of solo electric violin and strings gave him. Each of the movements was very much a character piece, exploring a particular mood, and it was mood and texture which were important rather than specific melodic material. I have to confess that I am still not sure about the electric violin as a solo instrument, but Francesco D'Orazio was clearly a virtuoso and was finely supported by Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

For the second half of the concert we had a concert performance of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. The actor Rory Kinnear provided the narration, speaking Deryck Cooke's translation of Jean Cocteau's original. Kinnear was amplified, so that his narration had a rather intimate, confiding quality. It worked very well, but I did wonder whether something more monumentally declamatory might have been more in keeping with Stravinsky's vision.

The chorus plays and important role in the piece, and here the men of the BBC Singers were joined by the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus to provide a very strong choral contribution. Their opening chorus combined monumentality with some wonderfully incisive and crisply controlled rhythms. Oramo kept the fast passages quiet so that the chorus's contribution was intensified, at times almost whispering.  Throughout the piece, the chorus commented on the action sometimes with crisp, chugging motifs and sometimes with stronger, darker feelings. When the Messenger (Duncan Rock) came to tell of Jocasta's death, it was the chorus which took over the major role in a bizarrely jolly chorus which the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus sang with terrifying relish and pin point rhythms. The final, powerful chorus was a complete tour de force.

Allan Clayton was a very strong Oedipus, displaying a combination of power, focus and control. The role requires a tenor who can sing with a reasonable amount of dramatic bite, but who can cope with Stravinsky's rather florid writing. Clayton was just about ideal, in the way his tenor rang out over the orchestra but you could hear every detail and appreciate the sense of line. He managed to combine the strongly dramatic moments with some lovely lyric ones, plus a good feel for the language; and his final, short speech was profoundly moving.

Jocasta is a relatively short role, but an important one and Hilary Summers sang her solo with a wonderful combination of directness and her familiar straight tones, but still managed to bring in a seductive element too. Her duet with Clayton's Oedipus was one of the high-points of the drama, full of thrilling vocal moments and wonderful orchestral detail.

Brindley Sherratt was admirably firm and trenchant as Tiresias. Juha Uusitalo's Creon was vivid enough, but his tone was rather too blustery for my taste. Duncan Rock made a fine Messenger, with strong, dark tones and powerful delivery. He was joined by Samuel Boden's as a rather pressured Shepherd.

There were moments in the performance when the balance was not ideal, though I realise that this varies depending on where you sit in the auditorium (I was in seat H61, going through door J in the Stalls). Whilst Oramo kept the orchestra under fine control, there was a feeling that the soloists would have had a rather more favourable time if the orchestra had been in the pit.

The orchestra contributed some finely thrilling playing, wonderfully controlled and crisp but still powerful. This period of writing in Stravinsky's career requires performers to combine accuracy with thrilling power, the devil is always in the detail. Here all the details were present, with terrific rhythmic precision and control and some lovely solo details in the orchestra, and combining into an ideal whole. You can hear the whole performance on the BBC website for 30 days.

A revised version of this review appears on OperaToday.com.

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