Prom 56: Staatskapelle Dresden/ Luisi, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The venerable Staatskapelle Dresden arrived at the Proms proudly bearing the excess luggage of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony – a piece dedicated expressly to them.

But the first sounds they produced emanated from somewhere far deeper than the foothills of that particular mountain range.

Rebecca Saunders’ traces begins in the lowest reaches of string basses with a series of glissandi suggesting seismic movement or even perhaps primitive words. The meaning of these resonances and explosive grunts is unclear but as the drones and pulses (from antiphonal percussion) grow more animated and light-catching high strings are introduced into the texture it is clear that this is essentially sculptural music built of earthly matter. We hear it as we might see it – a kind of musical Richard Serra. Saunders claims to allude more to words – not least the austerity of Samuel Beckett. But she would do well to learn from his wit.

Elemental sonority then gave way to reassuring harmony as Lang Lang took the stage for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor. Fabio Luisi almost managed to make something elegant out of the frumpily scored introduction and, stage set, Lang Lang started working his magic. Chopin is so very much his composer; his kinship with those yearning embellishments suggests a kind of celestial improvisation. In the slow movement he seemed to suspend time with the arrival of the opening “aria”, the lavish ornamentation leading the ear to those blissful harmonic consonances as if the pleasure was entirely in savouring their anticipation. Rarely has the unlikely solo bassoon sounded so suave a duettist and the sight of Lang Lang poised over the keys until the last note of the movement had completely evaporated demonstrated his acute sensitivity. Some find Lang Lang too fanciful. But in this music he is a poet.

And so began the big climb. But amidst the cowbells and yodelling and great organ-buttressed welters of sound in Strauss’ Alpine Symphony Fabio Luisi and his handsome orchestra found many a personal inflection. The best of the piece is in the final minutes where Strauss basks in the afterglow of his strenuous commune with nature. There was infinite poignancy in the final two-octave glissando in the violins – a sigh of quiet acceptance worthy of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. But as a final note I really don’t buy the “tradition” of Strauss’ extra offstage horns emulated on stage with mutes. Put that down to the credit crunch.