Precision, Clarity and Sustained Focus as the Bergen Philharmonic Visits the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 56: Ørjan Matre, Mendelssohn, Alissa Firsova & Stravinsky: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor), Royal Albert Hall London, 27.8.2015. (CS)

Ørjan Matre: preSage (world premiere of this version)
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor
Alissa Firsova: Bergen’s Bonfire
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Mendelssohn’s E Minor Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring seem at first glance to be musical chalk-and cheese.  The former is effortlessly melodious, beautifully simple and gracefully urbane; it has charmed audiences since its first performance by the composer’s friend and Leipzig colleague Ferdinand David in March 1845.  The latter combines brutal primitivism, metrical disruption and ritual sacrifice; at the premiere in May 1913, the score – and Nijinsky’s violent, ‘ugly’ choreography – prompted an audience riot during which the uproar in the auditorium, as rival factions attacked one another, drowned out both the music and Nijinksky’s desperate instructions to his dancers.

Yet, in this Prom by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, the two works were united by surprisingly similar resolve and discernment, and an approach characterised by precision, clarity and sustained focus.

Alina Ibragimova’s performances of Bach and Vivaldi at this year’s Proms have been notable for their somewhat understated, at times introverted, expressive mode, but one which has communicated seriousness of purpose and clarity of vision, and one which has been underpinned by sureness of technique.  The same composure was evident in this pensive performance of Mendelssohn’s perennial favourite: the tone was ever-sweet, the phrasing immaculate and elegant, the virtuosic episodes – the rhetorical chords and string-crossing in the cadenza of the first movement Allegro molto appassionato, the self-accompanying double-stopping in the following Andante, and the crazily hasty semiquavers of the final movement – coolly delivered.

Somewhat ironically, given the complaints this season from some who object to what they regard as over-enthusiastic, inappropriate inter-movement applause, Mendelssohn is reputed to have linked the conventional three movements of the concerto with short ‘bridging passages’, because as a performer he himself found such interruptions intrusive and distracting.  Litton and Ibragimova certainly conveyed a seamless whole.  But, this performance felt rather too swift for my liking.  In the first movement it was Ibragimova who set off somewhat impetuously: a slightly less racing pulse would have allowed the soaring arcs of the opening E-string melody to breathe more freely and the rolling quavers of the string accompaniment to pulse more affectingly.  The tempo did settle, and there were some beautiful tonal contrasts, particularly in the luminous passage for flute, clarinet and soloist, and through the searching harmonies of the quiet episode that precedes the cadenza.  In the latter, the controlled lyricism which was such a wonderful feature of the violinist’s unaccompanied Bach recitals allowed her to communicate with an intensely focussed expressive voice.  But, the Andante saw Litton again set off at a lick, and here I felt that the spacious beauty of the theme was diminished.  The final Allegro ‘molto vivace’ was just that: break-neck.  Ibragimova’s technique was not troubled by the haste, but a bit more air and light might have injected a more joyous spirit of youthful mischief and fun.

In an encore from one of Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonatas for accompanied violin, though, Ibragimova seemed utterly at one with the music’s spirit of discovery – of an exploration which is technical, artistic and expressive.  More striking even than the dazzling virtuosity on display, was the violinist’s apparent accord with Ysaÿe’s belief that the performer ‘must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing’.  

If Ibragimova brought unusual shadows and gravity to Mendelssohn’s concerto, then Litton made Stravinsky’s kinetic drama of tribal upsurges and celestial triumphs totally his own too.  This was an impressively assured and thoughtful performance, which emphasised the score’s diversity of colour and mood, bringing a sensitivity and shining clarity to episodes which are sometimes characterised by weight and fury.  The players of the Bergen Philharmonic were utterly committed to Litton’s vision of the work.  The chant-lie serenity of Per Hannevold’s opening bassoon solo was tinged with the slightest sense of unease; the superimposed ‘stamping’ of strings and horns in ‘The Augurs of Spring’ were tight and surprisingly hushed, making the displaced accents all the more disturbing.  Brass and percussion brought vitality, rather than violence, to the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’; the insistent stabbing brass and wind in the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’ was incisive and controlled.

This performance may not have been ‘savagery unleashed’ – and the absence of notable acceleration at the close did diminish the feeling of dreadful and inescapable exhaustion which overcomes and destroys the ‘Chosen One’ with shocking rapidity in the work’s final bars.  But the quasi-neoclassical bite and freshness which Litton drew from his players were no less urgent or compelling.

Alongside these ‘Essential Classics’ were two new compositions.  The programme began with Norwegian composer Ørjan Matre’s preSage, which was given here in a revised version of that commissioned to mark conductor Vasily Petrenko’s debut as principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in August 2013.  The work is roughly modelled on The Rite of Spring, although I confess that I struggled on this brief hearing to identify recognisable quotations and links.  However, the fragility of the opening, the pulsing dynamic expansions, the rhythmic convolutions, the oscillations of tenderness and power, delicacy and brutality, together with the strong, underlying driving pulse do recall the manner in which the veiled violence and dark undercurrents of The Rite gradually accumulate to be released with explosive potency.  Litton was again eager to highlight unusual sonorities and find translucency amid complexity.

Alissa Firsova’s Bergen Bonfire employed a more direct expression, at times recalling Mahler, even Rachmaninov.  Inspired, the composer tells us, by a dream about an apocalypse that she had many years ago, it depicts the Norse myth Ragnarök – a sort of Scandinavian ‘Twilight of the Gods’, though there was little that is Wagnerian about the work.  The colourful palette and sensitive instrumental sonorities – tender high violins plus harp; solos in the slow section from clarinet and then bassoon which through their piercing timbres and subtly shifting harmonies evoked ‘strange’ worlds – and the vigorous rhythmic cross-rhythms for percussion and brass made it an admirable and fitting preface to Stravinsky’s ballet.

Claire Seymour

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