United Kingdom Prom 49: Ravel, Jukka Tiensuu, Szymanowski, Rimsky-Korsakov Anu Komsi (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 23.8.2014 (RB)
Ravel – Mother Goose – suite
Jukka Tiensuu – Voice-verser
Szymanowski – Songs of a Fairy Princess
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade
Fairy tales was the unifying theme connecting all four works in this cleverly constructed programme. Sakari Oramo’s wife, Anu Komsi, joined him and the BBC SO to give the UK première of two works: Voice-Verser by Finnish composer, Jukka Tiensuu and Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Princess. The former is sprinkled with nonsense verse and puns which seem to come straight out of Lewis Carroll. The Szymanowski songs were originally written during the First World War for soprano and piano: the composer orchestrated three of the songs in 1933 and Oramo orchestrated the remaining three in 2012.
There was much to admire in the BBC SO’s performance of Ravel’s Mother Goose suite. The opening movement was played with a refined and fragile delicacy with the BBC SO projecting the hushed dynamics well. There was excellent control of phrasing and dynamics from the strings in Hop-o-My-Thumb and some imaginative characterisation involving the contra-bassoon in Conversation between Beauty and the Beast. The Fairy Garden had a gorgeous silky lustre and sheen and Oramo’s control of both balance and the blend of orchestral colour was impeccable throughout.
Jukka Tiensuu’s Voice-Verser was specifically written for Anu Komsi and it is a self-consciously witty and humorous work. The work calls for two groups of instrumentalists at the back of the orchestra on either side to create echo effects and in this performance they were placed on raised platforms at the back of the Arena. Komsi has described the work as “an ironic coloratura concerto” and it requires considerable vocal agility and treats the voice almost as an instrument in its own right. In the second movement, entitled Come, Komsi gave us both natural and operatic laughter and blew some big air kisses to the audience. She negotiated the tricky vocal writing extremely well, demonstrating an impressive range of timbres and finely shaded dynamics as well as some outstanding singing at the top of the vocal register. The audience responded with spontaneous applause at the end of this movement. In the final movement, entitled Ritti,the instrumentalists joined in the fun by shouting ‘Hei!’ at the beginning and heaving a big sigh of relief at the end. I thought this was a highly individual, genuinely humorous and enjoyable work.
The second half opened with Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Princess which are settings of symbolist poems by the composer’s sister, Zofia. Anu Komsi said in the programme notes that many professionals are unable to separate Szymanowski’s orchestrations from Oramo’s and I must say that I agree: Oramo’s orchestrations are very good indeed. He and the BBC SO provided a flexible and responsive accompaniment, bringing out the dark chromatic timbres and heightened and febrile emotions in the score. Komsi was well on top of the intricate vocal writing and brought out the charged eroticism and claustrophobia in the music (written at a time when the composer was cautiously becoming more open about his homosexuality). She used rather too much vibrato for my taste and occasionally I would have welcomed a more voluptuous and rich sound in some of the soaring romantic passages. However, the ecstatic peroration in the final song was thrilling and brought the set to an electrifying conclusion.
Oramo and the BBC SO concluded the Prom by giving a gripping and stylish account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s perennially popular Scheherazade. The orchestra’s leader, Daniel Rowland, made a reasonably good job of the violin solos – his playing was a little tentative to start with and the tone a little thin – but he gained in confidence as the evening progressed and gave us some very accomplished luminous and silky playing in the final two movements. The first movement was taken at a steady pace and Oramo and the BBC SO brought out the grand epic sweep of the music. The woodwind entries in the second movement were excellent and Oramo kept a firm hand on the tiller throughout, cranking up the emotional temperature when required. I loved the playful dancing quality which the principal clarinet and tambourine brought to the third movement – the playing was rhythmically vibrant, light and nicely coloured. The degree of textural clarity and incisive articulation which the BBC SO achieved in the rapid final movement was absolutely stunning – this was a bravura piece of playing that was deservedly received with a rousing cheer from the Promenaders.
Overall, there was some first rate playing at this Prom and it was good to see these pieces by established and-up-and coming composes receiving their UK premières – I hope it leads to both pieces being performed more widely.