music The Proms

Edward Seckerson ascends the heights with Scriabin, Szymanowski and Strauss before plumbing the depths with Richard Meale
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It was, by any reckoning, a thoroughly hedonistic evening. The sun rose over the Aegean (Carl Nielsen was there), the Finnish heartlands shimmied to the strains of Kaija Saariaho, and there was ecstasy without agony - depending, of course, on your musical predilections.

This year's Proms Guide stressed the "striking contrast" between the two big works in Part 2 of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Tuesday concert: Szymanowski's Stabat Mater and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy - the "hieratic" and the "unashamedly erotic". But just how fine is the line that divides them? It's that delicate balance between sacred and profane, that interesting tension between the wild and the exquisite that makes Szymanowski's Stabat Mater so extraordinarily potent. Somehow or other, it manages to retain its poise even when the vestal flame is at its most intense. There is as much a sense of intoxication here in a pair of clarinets and a solo voice as there is in the bronzed climax that implores us to share in the agony of Christ. And come the soprano's beatific prayer in anticipation of Paradise, there can be no mistaking a melody that is truly, madly, deeply, sensual.

Scriabin's was, of course, a somewhat more blatant, not to say tasteless, perception of ecstasy. His tumescent Poem goes straight for the baser instincts, a veritable empire of the senses, setting out like a kind of L'Apres-midi of the tropics and cresting on the back of an infernal trumpet tune towards the longest, most prodigious of erections in 10 horns and a panoply of bells. The foreplay is prolonged, the incidence of coitus interruptus high. Even as Scriabin is teasing one last rise out of his final crescendo, you begin to wonder if we will ever actually arrive on that orgasmic C major chord. Salonen and the BBC Symphony did so with demonstrative aplomb, the Albert Hall organ swelling underfoot, the 10 horns slowly, symbolically, lifting the bells of their instruments aloft.

Salonen lavished more care than was merited on the finer points, the sub-L'Apres-midi languors of Scriabin's cosmic love-in. Or perhaps the aquatic, light-catching tintinnabulations of his compatriot Kaija Saariaho's music were still very much in our ears. Her Violin Concerto, Graal Theatre, confirmed for me the impression of earlier pieces: that the beauty of her ethereal, fine-featured work is far from skin-deep, but that a sense of the imperative is somehow missing. No fault of the dedicatee, Gidon Kremer, who went about it with his characteristic inquisitiveness. The violin's symbiotic relationship with the orchestra is not unlike that explored in Poul Ruders' recent Viola Concerto, but how different the outcome. Somehow, you know that the soloist will emerge from this experience exactly as he went into it - in a haze of arpeggiated harmonics. Reassuring, but benign.

From down-under, the Sydney Symphony ventured up and over on Wednesday. And they weren't travelling light. Strauss's Alpine Symphony is, to some extent, safety in numbers: an earful, an eyeful. But you don't reach the summit on a wish and a prayer. Edo de Waart led a sound expedition. The views were impressive, the spirit accommodating. His strings made real music of Strauss's aspiring unisons, his brass were imposing, the Albert Hall galleries rang to the strains of rampant hunting horns. That's what the piece is all about. But where, I ask, was Percy Grainger? Patiently I sat through a terrible piece of hand-me-down 1960s memorabilia by Richard Meale. Then there were the encores: Waltzing Mathilda, of course (though had no one even considered Mackerras's "Variations"?). But still no Grainger. Call yourselves Aussies... shame on you.