There’s nothing like a bit of existential angst to undercut any potential charges of pedestrianism at the Proms. In tonight’s concert, the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented a series of works from radically different periods of music history that are united in the depth drama they contain. Rebel’s “Le Cahos”, Dusapin’s Outscape and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique all possess a voluptuousness of feeling that is near-impossible to resist, and the orchestra’s nuanced interpretations did those murky depths justice for the most part.

Joshua Weilerstein © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Joshua Weilerstein
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Though the terse cluster chord that opens Rebel’s dance suite lacked the full, terrifying punch that one would have hoped for – most likely due to the diminished size of the ensemble for the piece in conjunction with the cavernous size of the hall – the string section nevertheless attacked the dissonances with as much energy as was available. Joshua Weilerstein set an appropriately luxuriant tempo, allowing those harsh discords to ring out and accurately relay Rebel’s picture of a world without form. As the piece moved out of the chaotic confusion of the elements into the creation of the material universe, each section was allowed time to unfold, the woodwinds cutting nicely through the stormy textures of the strings throughout the Water and Air sections. 

While Rebel takes chaos as a starting point before moving to a more enlightened sound world, Pascal Dusapin’s work stews in its own juices, offering no such hope of logic and order. At the opening of the piece, Alisa Weilerstein’s cello traded blows with the bass clarinet on an austere drone, their textures intertwining to blend in and out of focus with each other as the orchestra increasingly glowered in the background. With cracking woodblocks and moody textures, the opening section had a strangely filmic soundscape, bringing to mind Ennio Morricone at his most experimental – that is, Ennio Morricone if he was composing for a film about the end of the world. As the piece moved on there was little sense of movement or development, only fluctuation in the thickness of texture, the freneticism of playing, and the general anxiety levels. Stasis is Dusapin’s game here, and it was a dark thrill to hear the slowly crawling melodic lines in the strings being inexorably weighed down by an anchoring pedal note – anyone who has experienced the music of drone metal acts like Sunn O))) will know this aesthetic well. Like the opening of “Le Cahos”, Outscape presents a world without order or meaning. The difference is that Dusapin, like any good modernist, asserts that there is no way out, and his piece consequently feels like it is revelling in its own primordial sludge. My only quibble would be that Weilerstein’s cello – at turns elegantly lethargic and disarmingly frenetic – was occasionally drowned out during the tutti sections, her intricate runs sometimes becoming lost in the orchestra’s thick gloam. A small setback in what was to all extents and purposes a wonderful exercise in sustained angst.

Joshua Weilerstein and Alisa Weilerstein perform Bartók as an encore © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Joshua Weilerstein and Alisa Weilerstein perform Bartók as an encore
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After a brief duo encore of Bartók’s Transylvanian Dance – with the Weilerstein siblings on cello and violin – came Berlioz’s celebrated trip into madness and delusion. After the stark, apocalyptic sound world of Dusapin, this work of classic Romanticism was always going to sound slightly lightweight in comparison. However, both conductor and orchestra ensured that maximum impact was achieved by taking dynamic extremes at their word, committing fully to both the elegant pianissimos and the crashing forte sections. Occasionally it felt like fatigue had set in – the brass sounded slightly tentative in the “March to the Scaffold”, but a minor setback in a spirited interpretation that did the work’s Gothic drama justice. Particularly enjoyable was the way in which the harps meshed with the strings during the swirling second movement waltz.

Whether drawing out the dissonances of Baroque works, delving into the drama of Romanticism or revelling in the stasis of modernist anxiety, Joshua Weilerstein and the BBCSO proved that when needed, they can lay it on thick, in the best possible way. 

****1