Prom 28: Royal Stockholm PO/Gilbert/Von Otter, Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 10 August 2004
It was only fitting that the Swedes should have brought something of their own, something new, to the Proms. That something was Anders Hillborg's Exquisite Corpse. This is a piece of curious origins, the title derived from a game of consequences played by a group of Surrealists back in the 1920s. Hillborg wanted to imagine what kind of composition might emerge if just such a group were to build it entirely from snatches of his own output spiced up with "style quotations" from the work of others.
A contrived composition?
Asked and answered. The problem with this virtuosic "collage" is that for all its psychological subtext it ultimately sounds like, well, a collage with snatches and patches of favourite "effects" - a Ligeti-like cloud formation, a Varèse-like explosion of pagan drummings; atmospherics, gestures, sounds without rhyme or reason. Which was fine as a curtain-raiser, a display-piece for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic under their dynamic American conductor Alan Gilbert, but never more than the sum of its parts. A quotation from Sibelius's last symphony was its one and only memorable moment.
More familiar Sibelius - the Violin Concerto - followed. But when the soloist is Joshua Bell, familiarity is always tempered with a sense of discovery. Bell is the most creative of players. Every note, every bar has dramatic purpose; his phrasings are original and consequential. Physically, it's like he's engaged in a primitive dance with the instrument - the steps aren't always pretty, but the spirit is consistently exhilarating.
If Bell proved the best possible reason (other than ticket sales) for overdosing on (the Finnish) Sibelius rather than Stenhammar, at least the great Swedish master was represented by a couple of songs. Sibelius's erotically-charged and highly operatic setting of the Swede Johan Runeberg's poem, "The Tryst", is the one we normally hear. But Anne Sofie von Otter, like a good Swedish girl, brought us Stenhammar's version and made much of its unsettling understatement.
But her artistry was best displayed in three late Sibelius songs - stark, black-hearted, bitter-tasting pieces. "The Echo Nymph" set her adrift in a Sibelian nature-world of hollow woodwinds and rustling strings, while she rose excitingly to the ominous presentiments and chilling pay-off of "On a balcony by the sea" and the sorrowful ache of "Black Roses". Hugo Alfven's "The Forest Sleeps", rapturously sung in muted half-tones, at last lifted the cloak of death.
But not for long. The Stockholm Philharmonic's first clarinet was quite the seducer in Bartok's sensuous shocker The Miraculous Mandarin. Gilbert went for broke. That's what you do at the Proms.
Booking: 020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms. Prom 28 available online until Thursday
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