The vast clouds of weightless sound in György Ligeti's Atmosphères dissolved into the silky piety of the Prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin without a break on Thursday night as Sir Simon Rattle folded 100 years of musical history into six long bars of silence (Prom 63). First and most adventurous of the Berliner Philharmoniker's two BBC Proms, this was a programme that pushed pulse and narrative aside, instead exploring minute alterations of orchestral texture until the irrestible earthbound acceleration of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe.
From the tectonic growls, pitchless exhalations and shimmering filaments of the Ligeti to the gilded ethereality of the Wagner, the petrified thematic fragments of Sibelius's Fourth Symphony and the hot-house deliquescence of Debussy's Jeux, this was an exercise in control. Technically it was near-faultless in execution, every detail of articulation clear in a famously occluding acoustic, every phrase nurtured and refined, the chording suave and clean. Interpretatively, I was less convinced. There is no doubt that this orchestra can sustain Rattle's extreme tempi, but not all of the music in his programme could. Sibelius suffered most, sounding fragile and incoherent, a beautiful mistake. Ravel's vigorous sensuality came as a relief after Debussy's vaporous late ballet, the dawn chorus brilliantly clarified into individual voices, the flute solo enraptured, the Danse gé*érale taut and fleet.
The Nash Ensemble's Chamber Music Prom with soprano Christine Schäfer (PCM7) paired Debussy's late Sonata for flute, viola and harp with Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire: one an Indian Summer blur of nostalgic dragonfly colours; the other a brittle cabaret on that most fashionable of pre-war subjects, neurosis. Translated into caffeinated, jittery German by Otto Erich Hartleben, Albert Giraud's moondrunk symbolist poems had thrice been set to music before the actress Albertine Zehme commissioned Schoenberg to create a sequence for her, half-spoken, half-sung. At the 1912 premiere, Zehme wore a commedia dell'arte costume while the instrumentalists were hidden behind black screens. On Monday, Schäfer simply stood to one side of violinist Marianne Thorsen, viola player Andriy Viytovych, cellist Paul Watkins, flautist Philippa Davies, clarinettist Richard Horsford and pianist Ian Brown.
There are more flamboyant proponents of Sprechstimme but none as enigmatic as Schäfer. Hers is a delicate, woody voice in which everything seems to happen with tongue, teeth and hard-palate, the tone now bright (Der Dandy), now shivering (Eine blasse Wäscherin), now crooning (Der kranke Mond), now raving (Gebet an Pierrot), bloodthirsty (Rote Messe), sly (Galgenlied), euphoric (Heimweh) or bereft (O alter Duft). Conductor Martyn Brabbins's stop-start elision of the songs was true to Schoenberg's often baffling performance directions, chipped fragments of sonata da chiesa bass-lines bleeding into sentimental schmaltz or crude polka. The precision and tonal beauty of the ensemble's playing only intensified the sense of alienation, achieving with a handful of musicians a derangement more disturbing than the shrieking moral panic of Salome.
It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to parse Susanna's Secret, the second half of pianist-translator David Eaton and director Nina Brazier's nifty, thrifty double-bill for the Grimeborn Festival. Written four years after Freud published his theories on oral fixation, Wolf-Ferrari's one-act opera is far naughtier now than it was in 1909, when smoking was a pleasure without consequence. Nostrils tickled by the scent of Turkish tobacco, Count Gil (Christopher Jacklin) suspects his young wife Susanna (Georgia Ginsberg) of having an affair. Only when he burns his finger on the cigarette behind her back does he realise that she is the mystery smoker, and they gaily resolve to enjoy tobacco together. Though Wolf-Ferrari's score loses much of its narcotic allure without an orchestra, the sexual innocence of the young couple provides a tenuous link to the rustic hero and heroine of Bastien and Bastienne, Mozart's pre-teen tribute to his patron, Anton Mesmer. Here John Savournin as the magician Dr Fels, restores David Menezes's Bastien to the arms of Grace Power's Bastienne with a tongue-twisting dose of hocus-pocus and a wink to the audience.
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