Prom 42

Prom 42 saw Susanna Mälkki conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in two 20th-century classics – music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra – as well as the UK première of Olga Neuwirth's Remnants of Songs... an Amphigory, with viola soloist Lawrence Power.

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As I write this, I have just realised that someone in a neighbouring flat is listening to some rather loud jazz, a man is shouting outside, probably at the car alarm that has just gone off, and there is a bee buzzing around my room. It’s not that I didn’t hear these noises until now, but I’ve been listening to some Olga Neuwirth, and had just assumed they were all samples forming part of the eclectically diverse sound collage that characterises much of her work.

Remnants of Songs... an Amphigory, which received its UK première in Prom 42, is a more traditional concert work – a viola concerto in all but name, without electronics, samples, video, spoken text, or any of the other multimedia elements Neuwirth has embraced; it is, however, a theatrical piece requiring astonishing range from viola soloist Lawrence Power, mutating from the stillness of tiny high harmonics to mournful low snatches of folky melody, frenzied bow-shredding sawing, and solo wails à la Jimi Hendrix. Within the orchestra, the well-equipped percussion section seemed to be having a great deal of fun, while during the movement titled “...im Meer versank...” (sank to the bottom of the sea), several of the woodwind section appeared to be required to double on mouth organ – to superbly spooky effect.

Although there are passing allusions to songs from various composers and genres, the title refers specifically to Ulrich Bauer’s book Remnants of Song, an investigation of artists’ responses to traumatic events, and how these can encompass both a desperate seriousness and a mad playfulness. Further, the OED defines “amphigory” as “a nonsensical burlesque composition”. This nonsensical burlesque aspect came across particularly in the final movement, a chaotic waltz at times somewhat reminiscent of Ravel’s hallucinogenic La Valse. Being previously quite unfamiliar with this composer, I had little in the way of expectations, but an open mind, and found myself enjoying the anarchic riot of textures and colours, and the delightful scrunch of discordant harmonies a great deal, and was keen to hear more of her work. For those that feel the same, I suggest perhaps starting with trumpet concerto ...miramondo multiplo....

The other two pieces in the programme were both familiar classics of the 20th century, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (although, being the original 1936 version of the first suite, without the über-famous “Dance of the Knights”) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. In the Prokofiev, Susanna Mälkki’s clarity of concept and style brought a performance from the Philharmonia of unshowy intensity, a tendency to soft-edged sound saved from any woolliness by great rhythmic precision, the lighter sections played gently but with a slight underscore of icy menace. In the wrong hands, I have heard the Folk Dance, Scene, and Masks made to sound horribly twee, but here there was no misguided “perkiness”; they were played seriously, and they worked well. Particularly enjoyable were the solo contributions of Samuel Coles (principal flute) and Simon Haram (tenor saxophone), and the suite’s finale, The Death of Tybalt, was gripping. One small marring aspect, distinctly unenjoyable to my ears, was a triangle and glockenspiel which were far too loud for the balance; however, please note the qualifier “to my ears”, as we all have different spectra of hearing, and I am more sensitive than average to high frequencies, whereas the balance may have seemed quite acceptable to others!

Concerto for Orchestra is one of my favourite pieces in all music, and one I have loved since my teens. I expect goosebumps, tears, smiles, exhilaration, intellectual stimulation, emotional intensity and humour – and this superb performance by Mälkki and the Philharmonia provoked all of them. It is very much a piece where every little detail matters, and Mälkki clearly has an ear for the fine detail. While the broader shaping of the piece is important – and I certainly have no complaints there – on this occasion I found myself very much appreciating the little things: the wonderful dynamic range of the trumpet section (genuine pp!), the characterisation in the 3rd bassoon part, when it joins the stern duet in the “Giuoco delle coppie” (“Game of couples”) like a small child running rings around its parents’ legs, and the crystalline loveliness of Keith Bragg’s brief piccolo solos in the Elegia. When the piece had ended, I was pleased to see certain wind soloists and each of the separate sections given their own round of applause – it was well-deserved.

Programme
Prokofiev, Sergey (1891-1953), Romeo and Juliet Suite no. 1, Op.64bis
Neuwirth, Olga (b. 1968), Remnants of Songs...an Amphigory (UK première)
Bartók, Béla (1881-1945), Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116
Artists
Lawrence Power, Viola
Philharmonia Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, Conductor
Susanna Mälkki returns to
the Proms with two
genre-defining 20th-century
favourites. Revisiting the
doomed love of Verona’s
most romantic couple,
Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juiet
effectively revivified the
evening-length ballet, just as Bartók’s Concerto for
Orchestra cemented the potential of an apparently
contradictory title. Between these classics, Lawrence
Power joins the Philharmonia Orchestra to tackle the
fiendishly difficult solo part in Olga Neuwirth’s recent
work for viola and orchestra, comprising five
breathtaking, seething, allusion-rich movements.

Royal Albert Hall

Kensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP