The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop Make a Colourful Return to the Proms


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 51 – Marlos Nobre, Grieg, Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninov: Gabriela Montero (piano), São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 24.8.2016. (RB)

Marin Alsop conducts the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Photo credit: Mark Allan/BBC

Marlos Nobre: Kabbalah Op.96
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16
Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No.4 – Prelude
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances Op.45

Like many others I have been glued to the television over the last few weeks watching the amazing exploits of Team GB at the Olympics and wishing I was enjoying the festivities on Copacabana Beach. Now that the British athletes have returned, it was the turn of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of their Music Director, Marin Alsop, to bring the vibrant sounds and colours of Brazil to the Proms.

The concert opened with a relatively new work, Kabbalah, by the acclaimed Brazilian composer, Marlos Nobre (b 1939). Written in 2004, the title refers to the ancient tradition of Judaic mystical thought and its interpretation through symbols and ciphers described as a revelation of God’s wisdom to his creations. It is a highly rhythmic and richly coloured work which contains a number of allusions to Stravinsky and Bartók. I was not familiar with the work but I must say that I rather liked it. There was a profusion of rhythmic ideas initially set up by the woodblock and then taken up by other percussion instruments. The percussionists vied in a tightly coordinated way with the other sections of the orchestra and I enjoyed the execution of the angular melodies and the way in which Alsop and the SPSO were able to build up such a powerful head of steam. The work is an exciting adrenalin rush and it is worth getting to know if you have not heard it before.

The first half concluded with one of the great staples of the repertoire – Grieg’s A minor Piano Concerto. Venezuelan pianist, Gabriela Montero, who was the soloist for the evening, is particularly renowned for her improvisations. She was asked in the Proms Q&A if she would be improvising the cadenza for the Grieg and she very sensibly replied that she wouldn’t do this as the cadenza was an integral part of the concerto although I was intrigued as to what such an improvisation would sound like. Montero’s opening piano entry was imposing and powerful and I was impressed with her tone production and ability to project in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. In the opening movement much of the playing was highly poetic and beautifully coloured and the exchanges with the principal horn in particular were gorgeous. However, the use of rubato occasionally felt a little indulgent and it disrupted the flow of ideas while the musical pulse could have been steadier. Montero did a great job with the first movement cadenza allowing the music to build in power and intensity and her talent for improvisation brought a freshness and freedom to the music.

Alsop’s tempo for the Adagio seemed spot on to me and she succeeded in coaxing a gorgeous sheen from the SPSO’s strings. The music was beautiful in a simple and direct way with Alsop taking care to avoid excessive sentimentality. Montero’s handling of the dreamy piano figurations was absolutely superb and this for me was the highlight of the concerto. There was wonderful control of touch and timbre and Grieg’s arabesques were played with the most exquisite colouring and refinement. The finale started in upbeat fashion although Montero came in a little too early in her initial entry and the passage-work could have been crisper and tidier. The subsequent dance section was played with zest and brilliance and the passage-work was dispatched with virtuoso aplomb. The SPSO’s principal flautist played the opening theme of the central interlude with a radiant purity of tone that was very affecting. Montero brought a poetic sensibility to the material although she had a tendency to linger too long on some phrases and I would have liked her to let the music speak for itself a little more rather than underlining every expressive nuance. Overall, there was much to admire here and the audience responded enthusiastically although I would have preferred a slightly more disciplined approach. Montero performed one of her famed improvisations as an encore on the theme of ‘Land of Home and Glory’. This was a highly imaginative and inventive piece of playing which ranged from Bach to rag-time.

Prom 51 (2)
Gabriela Montero improvises on ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Photo credit: Mark Allan/BBC

The second half opened with the prelude of the fourth of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Basileiras. The work is written for strings alone and the first four notes are the same as those which Frederick the Great presented to Bach and which were used to such powerful effect in The Musical Offering. The SPSO’s strings produced beautifully layered textures and elegantly shaped lines while unearthing the highly expressive heart of the material. The SPSO’s leader, Emmanuele Baldini, played the violin solos with enormous eloquence while Alsop coaxed an impressive range of dynamics and sonorities from the players. As one might expect from a Brazilian orchestra, this was an immaculate performance of a masterpiece by their national composer.

The concert concluded with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances which were written in 1940 and proved to be the composer’s final work. The three movements were originally entitled, ‘Noon’, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Midnight’ although Rachmaninov subsequently decided to dispense with these titles. The dances are highly inventive and combine clear textures, crisp rhythms and lush harmonies. In the opening movement Alsop ensured the orchestral entries remained tight and coaxed a profusion of vibrant colours from the SPSO. The woodwind were particularly impressive in the central section creating a mesmerising, intoxicating web of sound while the alto saxophonist played the long melancholic melody in a highly atmospheric and soulful way. The final section did not quite ignite in the way this music can although much of the playing remained admirable. The second movement is a grotesque waltz which clearly owes a debt to Prokofiev and Shostakovich and the SPSO’s trumpets and trombones did a fine job signalling portents of danger in the opening bars. Alsop did a good job capturing the very unsettled feeling of the music and was clearly alive to the detail in the score. However, I felt the performance was a little too studied and constricted and I would have welcomed a greater degree of freedom in the playing. In the finale Rachmaninov includes both the ‘Dies Irae’ chant and one of the doxologies from the Russian Orthodox All Night Vigil. I was extremely impressed with the highly coordinated way in which the SPSO played the opening section – the players had clearly been drilled extremely well and responded with brio. Alsop brought a highly sensual and evocative quality to the central section before the players once more switched gears to bring the set to an exhilarating conclusion.

We heard two encores including a riotous performance of the Frevo by Edu Lobo which the SPSO played at their last visit to the Proms. Overall, I was very impressed with the SPSO throughout although I was hoping for a little more in the Grieg and Rachmaninov given the very high calibre of the performers.

Robert Beattie    

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