Prom 5: Juanjo Mena Leads a Variable Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 5: Strauss, Saariaho and Sibelius: Anne Schwanewilms (soprano),BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.7.2012. (JPr)

Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra & Four Last Songs
Kaija Saariaho: Laterna magica (UK première)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op.105

Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms
Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Also sprach Zarathustra is over-familiar because the opening section is the main theme to the famous film 2001: A Space Odyssey which depicts a sunrise. After that first stunning aural idea nothing like it ever returns in this 30-minute score, written in the 1890s for a late-Romantic orchestra embellished with extra horns, low woodwind, tubas, two harps and additional percussion. Here the C major chord with the organ sounding at its grandest seemed to go on forever, but those expecting this work to continue in a similar triumphant vein always sometimes find what comes after a little disappointing. It is undoubtedly a complex work and Strauss named – and loosely based – this tone poem after a book by Nietzsche. That book itself has its own origins in the writings of an ancient prophet called Zarathustra (or in Greek, Zoroaster). Nietzsche used poetry to describe the life and the preaching of this prophet, including the philosophy of the Übermensch (Superman) into which Man would evolve. This apparently very turgid book seems to have sparked sufficient interest in Richard Strauss to inspire some impressive music (as it had also in part inspired Mahler). He used some of the chapter headings, teachings and storylines as a starting point to ‘convey in music an idea of the human race from its origin, through its various phases of development … up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch.’

For all its undoubted philosophically-inspired sincerity, the music, where we experience fugue, multipart solo strings along with exquisite violin solos, and a great variance in style, never quite seems to match these extra-musical ideas. To modern ears some of it must sound absurd – in the middle of all the on-going angst about the ascent of man in ‘Dance Song’ we hear a Viennese waltz. If Strauss is being ironic here – he was not widely known for it. The leader of the BBC Philharmonic, Yuri Torchinsky, who was a rather hyper-active figure on the platform, was outstanding here, as were all the first-desk strings. Under their chief conductor Juango Mena’s baton – that towards the end was flailed so vigorously it disappeared over his right shoulder – the individual episodes were reasonably well-characterised if sounding occasionally lost in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall. Where necessary there was introspection, rapture, the murmurings of doubt followed by that apparent joy of the dance. Undoubtedly the musical characterisation was lucid and instrumental detail was polished. Under Mena all the sections of the orchestra made fine contributions but I sensed a lack of the tone poem’s overall trajectory in their performance.

I believe Strauss had Kirsten Flagstad in mind when he wrote the Vier letzte Lieder (or in translation Four Last Songs) and it was that great soprano who gave their première in the Royal Albert Hall in 1950. Anne Schwanewilms is a Strauss specialist but her best days are behind her if this is the best she can now do. She certainly sang these a lot better when I heard her in 2007. If she had a cold we should have been told but her voice sounded strained right from the start and lost its way completely towards the end of the third song, Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) when she missed notes out … and included some the composer would not have recognised. It is not good enough for a near-capacity audience to applaud something as unfortunate as this so enthusiastically – I really wonder how many really know what they should be hearing. The only positive was the orchestral accompaniment that was so full of the poetry, poignancy and resignation that the singing lacked.

After the interval there was the almost obligatory ‘UK première’ that is part of these Prom concerts, here it was Kaija Saariaho’s 2008 Laterna magica. When the composer in her programme note explained that this was ‘the first machine to create the illusion of a moving image: as the handle turns faster and faster the individual images disappear and instead the eye sees continuous movement’ I believe she is mistaking what was basically an early slide projector for the Kinetoscope from the late-nineteenth century. Nevertheless it was the title of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography and inspired Saariaho’s short work that is based on ‘variation of musical motifs at different tempos’. It includes some text whispered into their instruments by members of the orchestra whilst being underscored by the orchestra murmuring away in a dream-like way, very atmospherically. There is some extravagant percussion in the modern way making it almost a joint xylophone and timpani concerto and the BBC Philharmonic played the intriguing work with great commitment.

In my opinion, Mena was more at ease with Sibelius than either Strauss or Saariaho and his 1924 Symphony No.7 in C major concluded this variable concert. In 1912 Sibelius wrote down his thoughts about symphonic music as ‘I should like to compare the symphony to a river. It is born from various rivulets that seek each other and in this way the river proceeds wide and powerful towards the sea … ‘. Originally conceived as a three or four movement work Sibelius condensed it into one movement and as such it seems to meander musically from an uncertain opening before reaching the C major paean that ends the 20-plus minute Symphony. With Mena and the BBC Philharmonic the Seventh’s trombone theme seemed rather understated throughout – for Sibelius – and the more pastoral passages sounded more Spanish than Finnish. Mena’s tempi were expansive and if Sibelius – like Strauss – is ruminating on the future on ‘mankind’, where he thinks we are heading – into the light or is it darkness? – that remained unresolved for me.


Jim Pritchard

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