MUSIC / Heights of depravity: Edward Seckerson at the opening of the Proms

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The Independent Culture
IS THIS a sign of the times - 'the world's greatest music festival' opening in an orgy of bloodlust, fear and loathing? I know the BBC has problems, but must they air them in public? Whatever happened to sacred and ceremonial? Strauss's Elektra, that's what happened. No one downwind of Kensington Gore will have been in any doubt that the Proms were off and running - with a vengeance. And let's face it, the present state of BBC morale is as nothing compared to the house of Agamemnon.

If decadence has a sound, this is it. It's romanticism in decay, tonality looking into the teeth of atonality. There's nothing quite like Elektra - even Strauss was never quite so inspirationally tasteless.

The entire score is in a sense Clytemnestra's ultimate nightmare, the outsized orchestra exposed to its rotten core, the words discharged from the mouths of its characters like something foul-tasting. As Clytemnestra, Eva Randova insinuated hers with a marvellous mixture of revulsion and disbelief.

The role has tended to become a repository for fading mezzo sopranos, slipping ever deeper into caricature and an approximate kind of sprechgesang. Not Randova. True to form, she proved a great respecter of Strauss's gaunt vocal lines, shaping and inflecting with an almost instrumental sense of the word colour.

Elektra was Marilyn Zschau, looking (and acting) every inch the distracted diva (black flouncy frock, profuse golden tresses). She meant business. Few sopranos have this role completely within their voice, and on one or two top Bs and Cs it has to be said that Zschau was only just there with will and a prayer. A pity too that she had shot all her beautiful tone prior to the recognition scene with Willard White's dignified Orestes. But she couldn't have given more. She was gutsy, determined, a big voice, a big presence. So too was Deborah Voigt's Chrysothemis, source of the evening's most thrilling notes, her rolling lyric tone quality sustained even under extreme pressure.

Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony impressively plumbed the depths of orchestral depravity, never sacrificing colour for brute force, conserving their frenzy for the final dance of death. The sound of Wagner tubas opening the door on Clytemnestra's terrible dream will be with me for a few days yet. Strauss knew a thing or two about making precisely the right noises.

So did Ravel. It takes a brave, perhaps even presumptuous, man to play him at his own game. In Saturday's Prom, Yan Pascal Tortelier proudly displayed his orchestration of the Piano Trio. It's a highly skilled piece of work. The tone is recognisably Ravelian, the first movement in particular sits well, key lines imaginatively reattributed, telling allusions to the piquant sound worlds of Le Tombeau de Couperin and Ma Mere L'Oye. But as the mood darkens and textures fill, the private, half-lit intimacies of the original seem very remote indeed.

The confessional slow movement goes public, the finale is positively Olympian. It's more than another dimension of a well-loved work; it's a different work. Perhaps it will enjoy independent success, rather as Schoenberg's reinvention of the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet has. It deserves to.

Tortelier's BBC Philharmonic could not have made a better pitch on its behalf. Here is an orchestra in magnificent health. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet was earlier notable for its quietudes as well as its enflamed passions, Respighi's Pines of Rome was refulgent, its notorious 'nightingale' engulfed by a tremendous evocation of Roman legions pounding the Appian way with extra brass summoning from the Albert Hall dome. Yes, the Proms are very much on the march.

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