There are good examples around today of musicians who, having become professionally established for one skill, successfully cross over and become renowned in another. Christoph Eschenbach is one such; a fine pianist who is now in the top flight of international conductors. At the Proms he was conducting his NDR Symphony Orchestra from Hamburg.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is highly regarded as a conductor, but has only become known as a composer in the last few years. Basically, I wish he hadn't made the transition. After early avant-garde works, he has, since the mid 1990s, been writing music that is much more conventional and approachable. That's no bad thing in itself, of course. It's just that all Salonen seems able to do is to produce bland warm-overs of other people's styles, mainly a watered-down, if at times quite chromatic, minimalism with second-hand Romantic gestures. These works might be expertly orchestrated, but they have nothing at all to say that hasn't been said many times, and they say it very boringly.
The British premiere of Salonen's Insomnia, conducted by Eschenbach, at least kept a large audience awake for some 20 minutes. And at least its composer was attempting something darker and less relentlessly brash than usual. But Insomnia's material is unimaginative and rhythmically often very pedestrian. Despite its incorporation of four Wagner tubas, which add an occasional glow, the piece is, at times, surprisingly stodgily scored.
While Insomnia was Salonen's fourth Prom performance in six years, en sourdine for violin and orchestra is the first work by the 32-year-old German, Matthias Pintscher, ever to be heard in the festival. Pintscher is much performed, in the States as well as in Germany. I hope that he will soon become better-known here, for despite an occasional anonymity to his essentially avant-garde manner - as revealed, for instance, in some settings of e e cummings included in the Composer Portrait programme that preceded the main concert - Pintscher strikes me as not only a very able composer technically, but also having something real and of his own to say.
en sourdine certainly made an immediate and moving impression in the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Prom under Salonen's fellow Finn, Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Pintscher's title means "with mute", and though mutes themselves are hardly used on the instruments, the piece is for much of the time hushed, highly expressive and occasionally quite eerie or troubled. The solo violinist - here the exquisitely-toned, raptly-poetic Frank Peter Zimmerman, for whom the piece was written - has almost continuous melody and an unusual, ethereal cadenza in company with two orchestral violinists. Imaginatively scored with two groups of players, whose music all seems to resonate from the soloist, whom the composer describes as a "prism", en sourdine is beautifully wrought and beautifully shaped.
Saraste and Eschenbach also provided classics from the Austro-German Romantic tradition. Eschenbach's accompaniment to the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard's super-sensitiveaccount of Beethoven's Emperor concerto, and his tense and questing performance of Brahms's Second Symphony, may have been the more finely judged. But I also much enjoyed Saraste's intelligent reading of Bruckner's awkward Fifth Symphony, which offset the BBC SO's lack of lustre in such music by responding to this symphony's increasing structural fragmentation with more playful phrasing and tempo control - as this long work gradually unfolded.Reuse content