PROM 56: Scriabin’s Vision Realised in Light as Well as Sound

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 56. Holst, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Alexander Toradze (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.8.2014 (RB)

Holst – The Planets
Schoenberg   –  Five Orchestral Pieces Op 16
Scriabin – Prometheus:  The Poem of Fire


All of the works performed at this Prom were written immediately before or during the First World War.  Both the Schoenberg and the Scriabin received their UK premières at the Proms, in 1912 and 1913 respectively under the baton of Sir Henry Wood.  Holst was at the first performance of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces and the work had a huge impact on him and influenced his subsequent composition of The Planets (which was originally entitled Seven Pieces for Orchestra).

The Planets was performed last year at the Proms by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and it is something of a staple at these concerts.  Given how well known the music is, it is important for performers to ensure it does not sound hackneyed or clichéd.  I am pleased to say that Jurowski adopted a completely fresh approach:  like Gardner last year he adopted fairly brisk tempi, there was a wonderful sense of cohesion and architecture, and the blend of orchestral colours and textures was rich, varied and imaginative.  The rhythmic ostinato which opens Mars was imbued with menace and tension and the LPO’s brass really captured the apocalyptic feeling of the piece in the fortissimo climaxes – this was a great depiction of the merciless nature of mechanised warfare.   Venus unfolded with serene grace with Jurowski keeping the pulse steady while at the same time giving us flexible and expressive phrasing.  All of the solos were extremely well executed and Jurowski managed to create some gorgeous orchestral sonorities.  Mercury was light and whimsical and the woodwind gave us some excellent shaping of the scampering phrases.  Jupiter was full of ebullient energy and rumbustious high spirits and the rendition of I Vow to Thee My country was full, broad and stately and eschewed mawkishness and sentimentality.  The LPO gave us some limpid and subtly shaded textures in Saturn and the bells which closed the movement provided an ominous portent of things to come.   Uranus was famously described by Sir Malcolm Sargent as “the God of Bewildering Untruth” and it is one of the most intriguing movements in The Planets.  Jurowski and the LPO nailed the mercurial and fantastical elements in the score and the scabrous dance was played with increasing wildness and abandon.  Jurowski did not always observe the composer’s pianissimo marking in Neptune but adopted a sensible and pragmatic approach given the difficulties with sound projection in this venue.  The final moments in the movement where the wordless voices of the London Philharmonic Choir faded away were magical.

Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces is now over 100 years old (it was written in 1909) but many members of the general public still view this music as inaccessible, modern and avant garde.  It is one of Schoenberg’s first serial compositions.  The five movements create an expressionistic Freudian psychodrama and explore extreme and disturbed states of mind.  There was clearly a lot of attention to detail in this performance with the LPO offering some very polished playing.  The first piece felt a little too safe and controlled and I’m not convinced Jurowski and the LPO really nailed the very extreme feelings Schoenberg was trying to convey, although I liked the growling brass entries.  The fourth piece was better with the LPO really bringing out the feelings of fear, anxiety and desperation in the music.  There were some delicate traceries of sound in the second piece and superb playing by the LPO’s principal cello.  There were subtle and delicate shifts of light and colour in the pulsating third piece.  The final piece was played with a wonderful sense of freedom and virtuosity by the LPO and it conveyed the sense of trying to reintegrate a fragmented psyche and a search for something new.

Alexander Toradze joined Jurowski and the LPO for Scriabin’s Prometheus which was written a year after the Schoenberg.  In this work Scriabin wanted to depict the evolution of the world from formless chaos to spiritual liberation and ultimate transcendence.  Scriabin was synaesthetic and associated different keys with colours; so in order to realise his vision he wanted the work to be performed against a series of fluctuating shapes and colours using a device called a colour organ.  Prometheus was given a decidedly psychedelic performance here courtesy of lighting designer, Lucy Carter, who had a go at re-imagining the effects of the composer’s colour organ.  The orchestra, choir, conductor and pianist were all wearing white shirts.  The performance began in pitch darkness (except for lights illuminating the music stands) and the neon panels at the back produced a series of constantly evolving shapes and colours as the music progressed.  The lights and columns at the very top of the Royal Albert Hall also gave shimmering colours at various points and sections of the orchestra and audience were bathed in red, blue, green and purple light.  Jurowski and the LPO did a good job bringing out the decadence and sultry, perfumed exoticism in the music.  Toradze was well on top of the virtuoso demands of the solo piano part but I thought his playing was a little under characterised, particularly given the range of detailed instructions the composer gives the pianist.  The London Philharmonic Choir provided the optional wordless choral part and I liked the vibrant and ecstatic sounds they created before the close of the piece.  In the final moments of the piece the audience were exposed to the full glare of the Albert Hall’s lights.  Trippy stuff – I’m sure Scriabin would have approved!

Robert Beattie

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