Classical Review: From Strauss to `The Sea'

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The Independent Culture
THURSDAY'S PROMS might have been billed as "transformations". The main concert opened to Richard Strauss's mournful Metamorphosen and a huddled gathering of strings from the London Mozart Players. Listening to this contrapuntally conversational elegy for war-ravaged Germany was like eavesdropping on a wake, though Matthias Bamert was careful to keep tempos mobile.

Despair gave way to joy when James Galway bounded in, kicked a mike cable out of the way and launched into Mozart's D major Flute Concerto. Showman or not, this sovereign flautist can bend the musical line, inflect his tone and toy minutely with rhythm in a way that only the greats know how. Richard Rodney Bennett had promised a Flute Concerto for the occasion but failed to deliver. In the event, Lowell Liebermann's tuneful and slightly wistful 1992 Concerto for Flute and Orchestra - in its first Proms performance - made a happy substitute.

I had great expectations of the Late "Irish" Prom, of Liam O'Flynn's "uilleann pipes" and The Piper's Call Band. Alas, the opening "old Galician song" rather gave the game away. Why a synthesiser? And why such excessive over-amplification? If period instruments can do without it, then why inflict it upon folk players? The musicians were not wholly blameless. Virtually the entire programme was the stuff of James Horner sound- tracks, replete with Braveheart's thundering drums and Titanic's sickly romance

Happily, John and Michael McGlynn made amends with their excellent Dublin- based choral group Anna and music ranging from medieval chant to echoing heterophony and Stanford's affecting "The Bluebird".

Titanic re-entered the mind's ear on Saturday when Osmo Vanska conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony in Nielsen's startling Titanic memorial, his gnomic Paraphrase on "Nearer, my God, to thee" for wind and percussion (one of two Nielsen Prom premieres that night). First came the hymn (or a variation on it), then the moment of impact and an almighty crash from the percussion. It was the one novelty on a programme that also included Sibelius's First Symphony - thrown open to the elements under Vanska's fiery baton - and Nielsen's surreal A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands, with its sudden yelps, hymn-like central theme and slapstick finale.

Sibelius's Valse triste served as our encore (in a relatively unfamiliar all-string version), though not before Beethoven's Emperor Concerto set Stephen Hough's beautifully groomed pianism in friendly conflict with Vanska's eager athleticism. The mix brought a certain fluency to the slow movement, but the rest was more pert and polite than especially invigorating. It was a facile, lightweight reading, brilliant but tame.

Friday's presentation of Sibelius's Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang and the City of Birmingham Symphony under Sakari Oramo posed a similar imbalance, but in reverse perspective. Chang's youthful recklessness and expressive excess seemed somewhat at odds with Oramo's orderly account of the orchestral score, though the sheer energy of her playing paid its own dividends.

The concert had opened with an impressive reading of Frank Bridge's ``suite for orchestra" The Sea, where Oramo's ability to chart sudden textural changes helped facilitate some compelling musical reportage. Anyone who fears for the CBSO's well-being "after Sir Simon" can rest assured: this man knows what he's doing. The definitive proof erupted from Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony, which flew off the stage in a single, sweeping gesture, raging or ruminating but with every episode perfectly paced.

Thursday's (early evening), Friday's and Saturday's Proms will be broadcast again on Radio 3 at 2pm tomorrow, Wednesday and on Thursday respectively