Classical review: Midori premieres the new Eotvos concerto, and Camerata Nordica excel in Britten

Prom 63 – Midori, Philharmonia, Salonen (*****)Proms Saturday Matinee 5 – Bullock, Camerata Nordica, Tonnesen (****)

There was an unaccountably long pause while the Philharmonia Orchestra waited for three of its percussionists to complete the ensemble on stage, but when they emerged we understood why: this British premiere of Peter Eotvos’s “DoReMi (Violin Concerto No 2)” opened with a quasi-fanfare by three triangles, before everyone got down to business, and they’d presumably been receiving some last-minute instructions.

“DoReMi” - MiDoRi: Eotvos’s pun on his violinist’s name was the cue for an entire work built on the musical beginner’s melodic building-blocks. But he was going to do interesting things with them: not just turning them upside down and inside out, but squashing the intervals microtonally, and layering them to create new harmonies.

Midori had said in advance that she was ‘overwhelmed by the depth’ of this new work dedicated to her, and her manic sawing and digging into the strings suggested that its action-packed 20 minutes would be a physical endurance test as well. Its first movement began as a multitude of fine threads, with Midori prima inter pares, and the musical jokes – beginning with a trombone wah-wah which Midori duly echoed - came thick and fast. Eotvos’s rapid shifts in mood and colour, combined with his fugitive tonality, generated suspense – what would he do next? – but Midori negotiated every twist in the journey with ice-cold brilliance, meticulously supported by the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s direction. The performance which followed of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony did full honour to that work’s majestic scope.

The newsworthy element in Proms Saturday Matinee 5 was the world premiere of “Elegy for Strings”, an eight-minute piece written by Benjamin Britten at 14. As performed by Camerata Nordica under Terje Tonnesen’s direction it proved a remarkably assured effort, with its imposing opening and its fleeting echoes of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge”. In an all-British programme, this excellent Swedish ensemble also played Walton’s “Sonata for String Orchestra”, though not even they could turn it into anything more than a noisy piece of bombast. And by juxtaposing Tippett’s “Little Music for Strings” with two more pieces by Britten they pointed up the limitations of that other British composer.

In Britten’s “Simple Symphony”, written when he was twenty, the affectionate mockery of Baroque convention was exhilaratingly magnified, and the diaphanous, viola-led “Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland Op 48a” had the benefit of a first-class British soloist in Catherine Bullock.