Prom 21: Berlioz and Act 2 Tristan| Prom 22: Mozart, Benjamin, Ravel

Urmana, Heppner, Connolly, OAE/Rattle | Aimard, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nott

Royal Albert Hall, 2 August 2010 4.5 stars 4 stars

NottIn order for a festival season of 76 concerts to retain any sense of vitality for itself it seems necessary that it play around with traditional concert form. So far the Proms have shown themselves very willing in that respect, bending programmes to suit works and performers, not the other way around as is common. Proms 21 and 22 maintained such formal novelty, each in distinct and interesting ways.

I'll go backwards; this evening's Prom, the latter of the pair, featured six works, three in each half. The piano underlay the whole endeavour. Each half, in turn, made use of a binding theme, which in the first instance could be said to be the piano specifically, particularly the nature of its relationship to the orchestra, whilst in the second the theme concerned the waltz; more particularly the waltz as dealt with in two major works by Ravel (with a less familiar work of the composer's dividing the half).

With the piano as orchestral partner the subject, the choice of Mozart and George Benjamin was apposite - though I imagine the choice of composers may have predated the theme. Binding the two was pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, renowned for his Messiaen and Benjamin (with whom he studied under the former in the 1970s). Providing a bridge between the two works, meanwhile, was another of the pianist's specialities, Ligeti, whose Music ricercata No. 2 (famously used in Eyes Wide Shut) was heard here in a somewhat rushed, unatmospheric form. Aimard's use of the pedal lacked grace, whilst even his famously saturnine style couldn't bring the required gravity to the wonderfully concentrated austerity of the work.

Aimard disappointed a little in Mozart Piano Concert No. 27, initially at least. His playing felt perfunctory, hammering out the passagework as he did in the opening movement, and sounding in the thematic passages where he and the ensemble are supposed to be in such unusual concert, almost at an oblique angle to Jonathan Nott and the musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who themselves initially lacked spike in their treatment of the staccato-rich themes, and appeared sluggish in their efforts to generate momentum.

All this was washed away by the total elegance of the Allegretto, however. Rarely have I heard such a transformation from one movement to the next; Nott was suddenly virtuosic, shaping phrases with calm grace, being particularly mindful for the liquidation of each phrase, its final bars, attenuating away suggestively there in order that the form could feel cloudlike, wispy, radiant in its flow. Aimard transcended his usual tremulous form, matching the serenity of Nott and the band with a beautifully weighted touch, and a sweetness of tone that grew and translated across the movement into playing of real loveliness. The finale moved in similar territory to the first movement, if a little sparkier and featuring more sympathy between piano and orchestra, though it must be said any interpretation is made hard by the persistence of the gleam from the slow movement, which hung in the hall like a dusting of gold.

Benjamin is an admirer of Mozart, and I've heard him lecture in the past on the skill with which Mozart treats the relation of soloist to band in his piano concertos. Benjamin's Duet takes this subject as its main inspiration, seeking to forgo the adversarial combat the two are so often entered into, whilst acknowledging their inherent differences all the same (the piano being percussive and harmonic, orchestral instruments in the main providing sustain and melody). In doing this Benjamin shows customary skill in handling the orchestra, with bleeding trumpets swapping whole tone(ish) themes with piano, whilst all the while ear-catching sonorities thread the flow of the work through its dance, gamelan, and chinese reminiscences. I particularly appreciated the gamine, delicate trappings of the harp doubling double bass pizzicato accompaniment patterns, though fresh effects of this sort abound here. The performance was exemplary, Nott showing strong sensitivity to sonority and dynamics throughout.

UrmanaNott carried this sensitivity into the all-Ravel second half, which he clearly intended to be heard attaca. Audience appreciation at the end of a particularly skillfully-handled Epilogue in the Valses nobles et sentimentalites, however, meant the flow was broken slightly. Nott raced off to a whipcrack start with a speedy first waltz, a little too heady to my ears, but modulted intensity succesfully across the free-flowing waltz canvass to touch on anticipatory states of depth and detail of the final, devastating La Valse. That latter work, after a turbulent reading of Ravel's own orchestral arrangement of his Miroirs - Une barque sur l'océan, toured a multi-layered array, decaying waltz fragments building to dances too resolute to subsist, bursting at the seams in a waltz hypertrophy that exorbitantly pushed the form to its limits. Nott showed superhuman achievement here, drawing together the contradictory, irrupting grid of material into a sweltering and swashbuckling twelved minutes, before the inevitable death blows of percussion at the end exhaust Vienna, making of the foregoing a reliquary for a disappearing Empire.

Simon Rattle led the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment the previous day in an even more unusually designed concert. This time it was the pairing of two operatic love scenes, the first instrumental and brief (about twenty minutes), the second featuring a cast of five singers and unfurling over about 80 minutes, that would comprise another unusual dynamic that was as refreshing in its way as the next day's hexalogy would be.

An opening reading of the Love Scene from Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet attained luminousity in its course, benefiting especially from the fresh tone colours of the period instruments and from the lucid sense of orchestral sonority these gave us across strings and woodwind, particularly.

Passion intensified for Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde, heard in the concert's second half. Rattle maintained the steady grip on formal contour and orchestral texture shown in the Berlioz for the Wagner, with the hunt at the start being particularly revelatory in terms of distinctive sound arrays. The gut strings and natural horns provided novelty, then, but this novelty did not come at the expense of force; Rattle drew ferocious climaxes from the orchestra often, particularly in the tumultuous strains of the love duet. Ben Heppner as Tristan struggled with audibility and with intonational finesse too frequently here, conveying a sort of worrisome desperation rather than ardour, though Violeta Urmana built on the vocal clarity and assuredness shown in earlier in her interactions with a formidable Sarah Connolly as Brangäne, to soar above the orchestra with a piercing diction, and an arresting, almost ecstatic, sense of emotion.

The performance grew in distinction as it moved to the close; I especially liked how carefully Rattle weighted the sonorities as the clamour pared away for King Marke's solo (a confident, intriguing Franz-Josef Selig) over bass clarinet, where the dark period wind instruments curled around his every questioning utterance in enigmatic penumbrae. These gestures echoed around Selig's invitingly intimate (yet powerful) disquisition later, graduating into the eternally longing Tristan chord later still, this last buttressed with sensuous reminiscences from the love duet, before a devastating final passage strong on imperious brass brought proceedings to an end. Audience reaction was thunderous, with Rattle touchingly walking around the orchestra shaking hands of individual players in thanks for their part in what has been an utterly compelling, and original, take on the music. Particular appreciation could be heard as Rattle shook the bass clarinettist Katherin Spencer's hands, she having been so resonant and engaging in her elegiac accompaniment to King Marke earlier in the night.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Jonathan Nott and Violeta Urmana

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