Salonen and the Philharmonia on Top Form at the Proms


United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 24 – Bach/Stravinsky, Ravel and Adams: Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Albert hall, London, 2.8.2017. (AS)

Bach (arr. Stravinsky) – Canonic Variations on “Von Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her”


AdamsNaive and Sentimental Music

Stravinsky wrote this transcription of Bach’s organ work as a companion piece for his Canticum sacrum in the 1956 Venice programme that contained the first performance of both works. The scoring for woodwind (minus clarinets), three trumpets, three trombones, plus harp, violas and double-basses is close to that of the longer work. In this performance members of the Philharmonia Voices sat in the spaces left by the vacant violin sections, which made for a satisfactory blend with the instrumental forces. With his usual skill (and some of his own instrumental lines to supplement the original counterpoint) Stravinsky makes the work sound more like his own music that that of Bach. Not only is it structurally satisfying, but it generates its own very individual, timeless atmosphere. As is well known, Salonen is devoted to the music of Stravinsky and his performance displayed an ideal blend of objective clarity and immediacy of communication.

Is there a more purely seductive sounding work for voice and orchestra than Ravel’s Shéhérazade? On this occasion it seemed hardly possible. The French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa has already broken through internationally after a career of only a few years, and she is surely destined to become one of the foremost singers of our time. This was her Proms debut. The voice itself is of outstanding beauty throughout its range, and Crebassa is clearly a most responsive and sensitive artist. She caught the delicate, sensuous expression of Klingsor’s poems and the magical quality of Ravel’s vocal lines to perfection. Salonen matched Crebassa’s singing in obtaining ultra-refined and elegant expression from his players.

If John Adams’s compositional style has generally been categorised as minimalist, his music often possesses characteristics which are far from what is implied by that term. Naive and Sentimental Music is one of his longest instrumental orchestral works. Its title only refers to the first of the work’s three movements, the others being “Mother of the Man” and “Chain to the Rhythm”.

The thoughts and inspiration behind the first movement, in particular, are very complex. It proves so difficult to relate the written explanation of the movement’s content to what one hears that it seems best to take the easy way out and just listen to the music as it falls on the ear. Much of what one hears, as usual with this composer, is intriguing and both beguiling and stimulating in turn, and the composer creates sound patterns and sonorities of great ingenuity. The problem, especially in such a long movement as “Naive and Sentimental Music” is the lack of variety in the basic pulse of the music (even though Salonen changed the general tempo occasionally), so that ultimately it is possible to become weary of the repetitious chug-chugs (not that they are necessarily so blatant as this term implies). Overall, however, there was much to stimulate and enjoy, especially from the percussion section, which was really having a night out. There was uniformly high quality of playing from all sections of the orchestra under Salonen’s vital and sympathetic direction.

Alan Sanders

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