It’s now 45 years since the release of Visconti’s Death in Venice: a film that helped send the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony shooting up the charts. The irony is that, musically speaking, this brief movement – part of a much grander plan - was never about death at all, even though the opening movement has more than just a stab at funeral obsequies. Conductors can verge between two extremes, either wallowing or walking on by. One man’s Adagio is another’s Andante, so to speak. Most, however, opt for something in between and come in at around ten minutes. So what kind of course did Captain Sakari Oramo, in charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, choose to steer? A moderate one. And notwithstanding the soft playing he obtained from the strings (albeit set against an over-prominent harp at the outset), with the gentlest of glissandi later in the movement, that was the overall impression left by this performance. One sugar only and just a drop of milk, please.
Over long stretches of Oramo’s interpretation I felt this particular captain was more concerned with a “calm sea and prosperous voyage” than with probing any nasty depths where shocks might lie in wait. There was little to criticise technically: with his precise beat, steady pulse and accurate cueing nothing seriously came to grief, though balance issues particularly in the first movement meant that the strings were often submerged under ferocious waves of brass. Oramo also revealed a keen ear for orchestral colour, most notably in the central scherzo. Indeed, he seemed happiest here and in the finale, where sunshine and a favourable wind made his progress towards home shores entirely uneventful. You can certainly avoid the neurosis that many others have found in this score, but starve this music of its bittersweet moments and underplay the pathological and you end up with lukewarm Mahler. The cello-led second subject in the second movement, for instance, was a little too literal: nothing tugged at the heartstrings. It is the composer himself who gives us a clear idea of what this Fifth Symphony is all about, “this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound... these dancing stars... these breathtaking, iridescent and flashing breakers”. QED.
All this came after an enterprising first half. It is rare to find a work written some 250 years ago receiving its first performance at the Proms. Here it was one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies, no. 34, which is an interesting example of a homotonal work (all the movements are in either D minor or D major). The structure too is a telling example of how unorthodox this composer sometimes was, with an eleven-minute opening Adagio frequently sounding like a heartfelt lament. Using modest string forces, Oramo shaped these long-breathed paragraphs most sensitively, the deep horns growling from afar and the sweet oboe tones emerging from the gloom like glints of the sun’s rays on a dark December day. With animated and stylish playing in the three shorter movements that followed this was Haydn with a broad smile on his face, the darkness-to-light transition foreshadowing so cleverly a similar structural feature in the Mahler.
But even before this composer’s mighty Fifth, there was the world première of a work in which the cello – already the centre of attention in so many other concerts in the current Proms season – demonstrates yet again why this instrument comes closest to the human voice. Charlotte Bray’s Falling in the Fire is a 20-minute piece that was written as a direct response to news the composer received of the destruction by ISIS of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a reaction which she herself has characterised as “the use of moral outrage as a motivation for art”. Scored for large orchestra, including a tuba and three percussion players, the work oscillates between images of a damaged outer world and a traumatised inner world. It opens with explosive force – agitated strings matched by sharp punctuation from brass and percussion – until the solo cello, played very eloquently here by Guy Johnston, emerges gradually from the aural chaos. What I found especially remarkable were the many instances of the composer’s brilliant ear for orchestration and her power to connect instantly with an audience. Three examples may suffice. After the dust settles in the opening section, the writing for wind mimics the sound of scores of frightened animals rushing headless in all directions. The repeated use of tremolando strings conveys a sense of flux and the loss of stability. And as the work draws to a close, a haunting quality is created by shimmering strings set against a sustained piccolo with an agitated cello line. Picasso was able to move millions with his representation of Guernica; modern music can give powerful expression to the anguish caused by inhumanity.
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