United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 26 – Tüür, Mozart, Brahms: Vilde Frang (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Paavo Järvi (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 3.8.2017. (CS)
Erkki-Sven Tüür – Flamma (UK première)
Mozart – Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, K.364
Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op 73
Last week I attended a terrific Prom which, on paper at least, seemed to begin with what is more conventionally the ‘end’ and turn the programme on its head. Now, I’m going to start a review with what usually comes last: the encore.
I’m not generally a fan of encores; I tend to think that a well-constructed programme needs no after-comment and a deliberately, skilfully created mood can be broken. But, there are some players or singers whom one just doesn’t want to stop, and there are occasions when it just seems right for performers to ‘say a bit more’, whether that is something exuberant, reflective or conclusive.
There’s something about the close proximity of the performers and the standing Prommers that can inspire an added freshness and spontaneity – such as Pekka Kuusisto’s impromptu Finnish folk-song merriment at the RAH last year. And, here, it seemed perfectly apt for Vilde Frang and Lawrence Power to ‘complete’ their quasi-operatic performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with a theatrical coda. The Allegro maestoso had been a feisty duet as the ‘couple’ tested and teased each other – it was easy to imagine the ups-and-downs of Susanna and Figaro. In the Andante, wistful melancholy deepened into a seriousness and sincerity of almost overwhelming poignancy. Then, as in any good buffa finale, the clouds of sadness and loneliness were deftly pushed aside by a zippy Presto which brought all the voices together in reconciliation and joy.
All that was needed was a witty ‘postlude’ to remind us that, despite the harmonious resolution, it might not be all plain-sailing from now on. Frang acquiesced with faux-reluctance when Power reached for her violin, and gamely began to play the viola part of duet-variations on ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ – a nod to Mozart’s own ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman’ – until Power’s over-indulgent E-string melodising led her to snatch her fiddle back and launch into a high-jinx arrangement of the nursery rhyme which pitted astonishing pyrotechnics against pizzicato playfulness. Despite their efforts to ‘have the last word’, the duo ended with the musical equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders, an admission of equality and acceptance. The Prommers loved it.
Before that we’d enjoyed details in Mozart’s ‘double concerto’ that I’ve rarely heard before, as the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under the baton of their artistic director, Paavo Järvi, accompanied the soloists with such graceful lightness that the tiniest pianissimo gesture – a dulcet oboes’ duet, accompanied by punchy crisp violin pizzicatos; a gentle horn pedal underpinning the soloists’ entwining arguments – could be effortlessly projected, creating freshness, grace and real excitement too. Like an opera overture, the first movement’s opening orchestral tutti gave us a foretaste of all the emotions to be lived in the scenes ahead, and the soloists, too, eased themselves into the drama, Power the first to join with the orchestral violas, then Frang taking up the violins’ line.
There were times in the running semi-quaver passages when I thought Frang wanted to go just a miniscule touch faster, but her lithe, clean violin line contrasted beautifully with Power’s fuller, grainier tone. After vigorous exchanges (some of the biting staccatos and exaggerated leaps were worthy of ‘Come scoglio’), the soloists came together with true sweetness, twirling through the lyrical chains of 3rds and 6ths. There was surprising flexibility and freedom – extended fermatas, whispered pppps and stark dynamic contrasts – showing how quickly and capriciously the emotional tone of this movement can change. In the cadenza, as Frang took off on a flight of triplet arpeggios, Power’s low double-stopped thirds seemed to be almost coaxing the violinist back down from the heights, and the voices embraced in a murmured Adagio which exploded into a fortissimo trill; then, they were off again, racing towards the conclusion.
The elaborate decorative lines of the Andante stretched expansively with Romantic tenderness, over the gentle pulsing of the orchestral strings. Järvi skilfully shaped the chromatic nuances and made sure we felt the emotional enrichening brought about by the telling contributions of the oboe and horns. Again, the cadenza was notable for its expressive freedom, the extended pauses and silences suggesting a struggle to give musical voice to such intense emotions; with Power’s elongation of appoggiaturas which begin each falling semi-quaver group, the music seemed to sigh, over and over, with unrelieved yearning, until the music slipped almost into silence, with Järvi also daring to venture the quietest of orchestral entries – barely there, the merest cadential breath.
The Presto followed segue, and at a swift tempo, whisking us into another world of tightly trilling violins, dry horn punctuations, and tingling string semiquavers. There was a remarkable crispness to the articulation which made every detail speak easily, as the players whipped through the dramatic twists and turns – sudden silences, dramatic twists, and did Power add a variant or two to the viola line? The soloists’ climactic climb seemed to say, ‘Anything you can do I can do better’: Power leapt from the stratosphere down to a gritty low accent, while Frang’s top Eb rang with astonishing strength and brilliance. It was a performance that, after the tetchiness, heart-wringing and nonchalance, ended with a harmonious smile.
There was freedom, too, in the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen’s performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony after the interval. Tempi were fairly swift but rubatos and the shifting metrical stresses were organically integrated into the on-going momentum. And, the fairly modest orchestral forces meant that, as in the Mozart, one could hear all of the intricate voicings within the texture.
Hans von Bülow wrote of the symphony, to Eduard Hanslick, ‘The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.’ And, there was a genial warmth to the second subject of the Allegro non troppo, Brahms’ parallel thirds and sixths – that pianist Stephen Hough made so scintillatingly lucid a few nights previously – now played with relaxed ease, but not over-sweetened, by the violas and cellos (which the repeat of the exposition gave us two opportunities to enjoy). But, Järvi did not neglect the movement’s shadows: the opening was cool and distant, the first motif’s semitonal murmur less the sway of a waltz, or a stroll through the countryside, than an intimation of unrest. The strings’ marcato dotted rhythms were a vigorous call to attention, initiating some driving repetitions in the inner lines. In the development section, the entry of the trombones and tuba darkened the sound and destabilised the bar line, and this volatility was further deepened by the timpani’s surging trill. However, Järvi peeled back the clouds and allow in transparency and light.
The Adagio non troppo took note of Brahms’ tempo proviso: it was sufficiently spacious for the opening cello melody to breathe, but brisk enough for the chromatic harmonies to wind their way forward with direction, and the movement acquired a persuasive urgency. The woodwind charmed at the start of the Allegretto grazioso, which sashayed with the lilt of a Mahlerian ländler: when the horns’ syncopation seemed to put on the brakes, so the cellos’ pizzicatos picked up the pulse once again, and such gives-and-takes seemed entirely natural. The Presto trio was deliciously crisp and clean, knocking the gentle gait off-balance with its down-beat trochaic accents. The Allegro con spirito also had a real sense of momentum but fluidity too, never rushing. Järvi used marked dynamic contrasts to intensify the temporal battles, but finally let the music push itself onwards to a celebratory close.
After their Beethoven and Schumann ‘Projects’, the orchestra are now working with Järvi on a Brahms cycle. Their concordance and confidence were ever-apparent here, and in the two Hungarian Dance encores that followed, and which were both friskily playful and full of fiery spirit.
There was fire at the start of the concert, too, in the UK première of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s 2011 Flamma for string orchestra, which aims to capture the flames’ destructive and purifying force, specifically a conflagration in the Australian bush. The astonishing opening, in which the cellos and double basses raced each other ever higher, culminated in furious down-bow chord clusters from the violins; thereafter, a concertino texture prevailed, with various sections assuming a solo role and passing motifs between them. Some gestures, such as leader Sarah Christian’s string-crossing arcs, seemed to allude to Baroque idioms, and the concerto grosso form. As the motifs darted about, slowly developing – rumbling low, sparking high, leaping then subsiding – I was reminded of William Golding’s description of the forest fire started by the over-excited boys at the start of Lord of the Flies: ‘The ﬂames … crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly … ﬂapped at the ﬁrst of the trees … leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and ﬂaring along […] The separate noises of the ﬁre merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the mountain.’
This concert confirmed the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen’s fine reputation, and I very much hope that we get the opportunity to hear them in the UK, under Paavo Järvi, perhaps with some more Brahms, in the not too distant future.