PROM Concertgebouw / Chailly

Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Dancing girls took centre stage at Wednesday's Prom when the Royal Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly bid Strauss's Salome cast off her seven veils and a captive girl tease Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin to paroxysms of passion. Both ladies had the benefit of a dazzling orchestral make- over by one of Europe's best orchestras. The Miraculous Mandarin in particular poses the conductor a mass of potential problems - complex rhythms, delicate lines that easily disfigure and the perennial challenge of making the story "tell" without the benefit of stage action. Chailly's method was to push hard and fast, especially in the opening cacophony (a riotous enactment of city life) and a breathless "chase" where the Mandarin pursues the girl and Bartok heads us towards 10 minutes of music not included in the Suite from the ballet.

Chailly wisely opted to perform the whole work, though there was no organ to underpin key climaxes and the chorus that usually haunts the penultimate scene was replaced by horns. The seductive clarinet "decoy games" were sinuous and biting, the Mandarin's sudden appearance at the girl's doorway malevolently majestic and the whole closing sequence - which includes some of the most vivid gestural music in all ballet - high in shock value. Chailly conveyed the cruelty, desperation and ultimate compassion of Bartok's most misunderstood masterpiece (most home in merely on the sex and violence) and I cannot wait to hear Decca's forthcoming recording.

Strauss's Dance is, by comparison, pure titillation, though the orchestra is even larger than Bartok's and the scoring extraordinarily subtle. Again, Chailly's approach eschewed any hint of vulgarity, drawing out the big string melody with great refinement and heightening the tension at the point where Salome falls naked at Herod's feet. Strauss's calculated excesses are worlds removed from the variegated traceries of the Three Preludes for Orchestra, by Tristan Keuris, that opened the concert, composed in 1993-4 and employing a late-romantic tone palette to 20th-century musical ends. Berg, Mahler, Stravinsky, all show a measure of their influence and all are central to Chailly's repertoire.

And Rachmaninov? Not so much, perhaps, though to hear Chailly lunge at the principal melody of the Second Piano Concerto's first movement recalled the plushly upholstered sound-worlds of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The soloist was St Petersburg-born Arkady Volodos, an impressive player who has been trumpeted world-wide for his virtuosity and whose fluid touch couched Rachmaninov's Adagio sostenuto in terms of the warmest tonal velvet. Volodos built the Concerto's tolling opening bars patiently; the second movement was notable for its poetic reverie and the finale - taken at a boldly swift tempo - featured some subtly underlined left- hand detail. Chailly responded with alert reflexes and a quick-witted orchestral fugato that showed the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra off to fine advantage. It was no mere circus act, I'm glad to say, but although I look forward to hearing Volodos again, there can be little doubt the musical heart of Wednesday's Prom triumph was down to Riccardo Chailly and his magnificent orchestra. Concert repeated 2pm today on BBC Radio 3