Prom 42: Bartok and Prokofiev Delight, but Neuwirth Challenges.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 42: Prokofiev, Olga Neuwirth, Bartok: Laurence Power (viola), Philharmonia Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2012 (CG)

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet – Suite no. 1, op 64a (1935-6)
Olga Neuwirth: Remnants of Songs…an Amphigory (2009) (UK première)
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

The Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki has built a fine reputation for her performances of contemporary music, although her repertoire is far broader than this might suggest; she now appears regularly with many of the finest orchestras in Europe and the US in programmes ranging from Vivaldi to the very latest thing. Tonight we had two warhorses from the twentieth century and an example of the latest thing, all directed with no baton but plenty of vitality and complete assurance.

It is always such a pleasure to hear Prokofiev’s take on Shakespeare’s tale, produced during the time of the composer’s personal and Stalin-induced difficulties. In the event, Prokofiev was able to come up with one of the most inspired and successful ballet scores of the twentieth century, bristling with his own brand of melody, quirky harmony, and luminous orchestration. It was ready-made for transposition into the concert hall, and Mälkki wisely chose Prokofiev’s own first suite rather than one of the other collections selected by conductors over the years, even though the seven sections do not appear in strict story order.

Some lovely playing from the orchestra, with outstanding woodwind solos, reminded us that the Philharmonia is one of London’s greatest treasures, with each of the seven sections given strongly characterful performances, energetic, bombastic and sensitive by turns, and all glistening with iced vodka.

Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs…an Amphigory, was more difficult. Difficult to play, especially for Laurence Power, the astonishing viola soloist who deserved an Olympic Gold Medal, and somewhat difficult to listen to. But then Neuwirth, who studied with Luigi Nono among others, writes music which is seldom about comfort.

Some of this music feels rather impenetrable – abrasive clusters, long passages of dissonant sustained chords, and the solo violist has a Herculean task not only to play the part but also to make himself heard, although any issues regarding balance were far less evident when listening to the broadcast later, thanks to the BBC sound engineers. Some of the music is harsh and garish, but there are some softly shimmering textures and some lyrical passages for the soloist too. Much of the viola part consists of squeaks, squeals, scrapes, glissandi and harmonics, and it’s probable that just about every effect possible is in there somewhere. In the past Neuwirth has employed electronic sounds in her work, something she finds quite natural for a composer of the twenty-first century, and her instrumental writing displays a similar approach, with the use of extended techniques and effects being very much part and parcel of her approach to composition.

An amphigory is defined as “a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody.” That last word, parody, is all-important in this piece, for onto it are superimposed quotations, or rather near-quotations, of….. well almost anything, it seems. Paul Griffiths, who wrote the programme note, talks of Mozart and The Rite of Spring; I did detect a snippet of Mozart but in any case you can’t fail to notice references to music from bygone ages when they come because they’re obviously in a completely different idiom to Neuwirth’s main style. She remarked that she is both haunted and obsessed by memory, and the strange mental processes which can disfigure memory – hence her predilection for quotations. I was reminded of T S Eliot’s use of literary quotations in The Waste Land and other poems; perhaps Neuwirth is in similar territory here?

Yes, I found this difficult. But look – this is a serious composer of great individuality gaining a considerable international following; she is best known in this country for her opera inspired by the David Lynch film Lost Highway and two of her chamber works were played by musicians from the Royal Academy of Music earlier this evening; both of these explored extreme techniques, but always for dramatic purpose. Several works were showcased by the London Sinfonietta earlier this year. Tonight’s opus was first performed in Graz in 2009, and if it’s not to my personal liking, then so be it; Neuwirth always challenges, avoids the ordinary at all cost, and seldom permits relaxation. The audience was certainly attentive – although several to whom I spoke afterwards were totally perplexed…

The irrepressible Mälkki returned after the interval for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in a performance which I thought was pretty well perfect; perhaps the last movement was a little on the fast side, but otherwise I found much to relish. This was the Philharmonia at its best. What wonderful woodwind playing! Samuel Coles (principal flute), Chris Cowie (principal oboe), and Barnaby Robson (principal clarinet) must be singled out for their outstanding solo work. And the two bassoonists, Robin O’Neil and Michael Cole – weren’t they just fabulous in that second movement? As were the two trumpets – Christian Barraclough and Chris Avison.

There were plenty of other delights. The opening night music was as quietly atmospheric as you could want; a beautifully subdued atmosphere also pervaded the third movement. The orchestra “laughed” marvelously during the quotation from Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony, and the fifth movement was genuinely rousing; the big climaxes throughout the piece were always stirring. All in all, then, virtuoso music played by a virtuoso orchestra, and what fabulous music! Bartok’s great score, so continually well-judged orchestrally, entertaining, and full of melodic invention, was composed when he only had a little time left, and that’s hard to believe.

Christopher Gunning