Inspired BBC Proms programming from Dalia Stasevska and the BBC SO as Iceland meets Russia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [3], Prom 8 – Jóhansson, Rachmaninov, Guðnadóttir, Tchaikovsky: Denis Kozhukhin (piano), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 20.7.2022 (CC)

Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and the BBC SO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Jóhann JóhanssonThe Miners’ HymnsThey Being Dead Yet Speaketh (2010, Proms premiere)
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18 (1900/01)
Hildur GuðnadóttirThe Fact of the Matter (2021/2, world premiere)
TchaikovskyFantasy-Overture, Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1870 & 1880)

Inspired programming again here in the 2022 BBC Proms season: Iceland meets Russia. And note the artist change: Alexander Gavrylyuk as the advertised pianist and had to withdraw; lucky us to have Denis Kozhukhin as his replacement. I had mixed reactions to his Tchaikovsky/Grieg coupling on Pentatone (my MusicWeb International review is here).

Dalia Stasevska opted to go straight from the Jóhansson to the piano bells of the Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. The cruelly short-lived Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson (1969-2039) wrote the music for Bill Morrison’s 2010 film The Miners’ Hymns, based on the lives of miners in the North of England. Aerial footage of former mining pits and the supermarkets and so on that now stand on those sites are seen in the film. The slow-moving sounds of ‘They Being Dead Yet Speaketh’, anchored by low brass, evokes a lonely, desolate and even somewhat desperate space. Quarter-tone keenings (lamentations) perhaps suggest a slipping of reality. The film was described by critic Nick Bradshaw as ‘an action movie, industrial noir, zombie sci-fi, and a dialogue with ghosts of the past’. This was a Proms premiere, haunting in extremis. When string chords begin to glow, that very luminosity seems to speak of hope, of the dignity of the miners in the face of adversity. The use of trumpet in particular seems to reference the cornets of colliery and pit bands; a full-throated solo violin (Stephen Bryant) sang mournfully towards the work’s conclusion.

The piece closes quietly, hauntingly, and with a chord that was superbly balanced and controlled by the members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; those same descriptors could in fact be applied to the entire performance. Out of that came the familiar chords of the opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, now re-framed, a prolongation of suffering, just geographically relocated. As a performance, this Rachmaninov was a meeting of souls between Kozhukhin and Stasevska. No doubting the fluency of Kozhukhin, nor the ideal pacing; the BBC Symphony Orchestra was on its best behaviour, too, with a notably expressive first horn solo from Nicholas Korth in the first movement. Orchestral solos were notable throughout: Richard Hosford’s clarinet in the second movement beautiful of tone, liquid of legato, his entry the perfect take-up from Daniel Pailthorpe’s flute line. Stasevska assured real pianissimos, too (that carried superbly). The finale was high-voltage, but not just super-virtuoso, but notable for the amount of detail (particularly woodwind) audible from the orchestra.

An encore, after the rapturous ovation accorded to Kozhukhin, was inevitable, and it could hardly have contrasted more (although still staying with Russia); the chorale-like ‘Mama’, No.4 from Tchaikovsky’s 1878 Children’s Album.

(Before we move to the second half, worth noting that one can hear the entire soundtrack LP for The Miners’ Hymns – issued originally on Fat Cat records – on YouTube.)

The second part of the concert began with a world premiere from Hildur Guðnadóttir. She is a composer best known for her video game music and her film music (most notably the score for Joker), here she sets a text by herself, a contemplation about our current times and the divisions in them (and the stark polarities those divisions bring). In The Fact of the Matter (2021/22), Guðnadóttir creates a soft yet powerful labyrinth, with the four movements interrelated and interwoven (What is the Matter; Matter of Fact; Matter of Attention; The Fact of the Matter). The four movements, in the composer’s own words, act as ‘variations of two sides of a coin’ with the first and third relating to perception of feelings about what’s around them (‘matters of who, what why’) with the second and fourth turning their attention to ‘the relentless facts of matters: our debates’. While the quiet pulsings of the opening were somewhat upset by a huge crash in the auditorium, the music maintained its mesmeric effect with the BBC Singers perfection itself. This is certainly haunting music. The second part is more overtly filmic and makes reference to bell sounds (linking back to the first two pieces of the evening). This second panel is more restless. The sudden, tonally-derived arrivals of the third movement nestle against a musical surface that is more overtly disjunct, offering another texture before the final movement brings us to a place of near-rest and near-luminosity. An interesting piece, certainly, if not one I would revisit immediately.

Dalia Stasevska © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Finally, a simply stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s evergreen favourite fantasy overture, Romeo and Juliet. It is worth hearing the BBC Radio 3 interview with Stasevska just for her enthusiasm about not only the passion, but the violence of the piece (she refers to a climactic moment with two trumpets against what she calls a ‘heavy metal riff in the background’); she sees it as a prototype to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. Her grasp of the score is total, and it is clear she can transfer that knowledge to an orchestra. Rarely have I heard the BBC SO on fire in this way, the opening chorale chords balanced perfectly, like a Russian chant, dark, carrying the weight of the ages on their backs. Beautiful, vocally shaped string phrases contrasted with passages with real bite; somehow, Stasevska managed to get the rawness of the syncopations across, and clarify textures, even in the Royal Albert Hall bathroom. That ‘heavy metal’ passage was certainly visceral (if slightly smudged by a trumpet split); and Stasevska even manages to sneak in the odd string portamento.

This Romeo and Juliet was the ideal combination of discipline and passion: astonishing; while the Icelandic element was what drew me to the Prom – and the Jóhansson at least confirmed my instincts – it is this performance, even above Kozhukhin’s mighty Rachmaninov, that will linger long in the memory. Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska (a pupil of Leif Segerstam and new Chief Conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra as well as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC SO) is a major talent. I note she will make her Glyndebourne debut next year, conducting a revival of Sir Peter Hall’s production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Given the care and understanding Stasevska so clearly lavishes on her scores, that should be something to treasure.

Colin Clarke

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