Prom 59/ Prom 58/ Proms 55 & 56, Royal Albert Hall, London

The Hamburg crew? Pass me my ear plugs please
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The Independent Culture

Since the nature of a music critic's job is to be picky, it follows that it's all too easy to forget that we spend most of our time luxuriously sifting between the competent, the good, the very good, the excellent, the oddly enjoyable, and the truly extraordinary. With this in mind, with the ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-ch-chunk-unk of the NDR Symphony Orchestra's chaotic pizzicato chords in the adagio of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto still fresh in my ears and the autobahn pile-up of their tutti entries in the finale of Brahms's Second Symphony as vivid in recollection as the gory Rorsach of any splatter-movie, I would like to take this opportunity to issue an apology to the members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra of English National Opera, and just about any other orchestra I may have been less than charitable about over the last three and a half years. You are princes and princesses of men and women whose collective contributions on the day or days in

Since the nature of a music critic's job is to be picky, it follows that it's all too easy to forget that we spend most of our time luxuriously sifting between the competent, the good, the very good, the excellent, the oddly enjoyable, and the truly extraordinary. With this in mind, with the ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-ch-chunk-unk of the NDR Symphony Orchestra's chaotic pizzicato chords in the adagio of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto still fresh in my ears and the autobahn pile-up of their tutti entries in the finale of Brahms's Second Symphony as vivid in recollection as the gory Rorsach of any splatter-movie, I would like to take this opportunity to issue an apology to the members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra of English National Opera, and just about any other orchestra I may have been less than charitable about over the last three and a half years. You are princes and princesses of men and women whose collective contributions on the day or days in question only slightly missed an entirely subjective mark and I'm truly sorry. You see, everything is relative and courtesy of the NDRSO I now have the benchmark for badness.

So their journey was delayed and their rehearsal - seemingly the only one for the concerto - started late. But even those listening to Prom 59 at home, who were informed of this via Radio 3, might have wondered just how the orchestra that recorded the complete Brahms Symphonies with Günter Wand had got into such a state? Was this really the NDR? Or was it their B-team, the DNR? And if, from the stalls, it felt first uncomfortable then as illicitly comic as a loud fart heard during a cremation service, what on earth must the Beethoven have felt like from where poor Pierre-Laurent Aimard - who recently recorded the same concerto with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, for heaven's sake - was sitting?

As a rule of thumb, any orchestra who can't hold on to their chief conductor for longer than three consecutive seasons is an orchestra in terminal decline. With the NDRSO, their problems appear to be much greater than any minor glitches in maestro-player chemistry. The basic tools of blend, bowing technique, tuning, attack and ensemble are blunted to the point where wondering if they were actually listening to Aimard's forceful and intelligent reading of the Beethoven became academic. Somehow I doubt that conductor Christoph Eschenbach - whose Brahms was agreeably taut and perceptive, if slightly preening - will be casting a nostalgic glance in the direction of Hamburg when he leaves for Philadelphia next year.

It is a telling indictment of Esa-Pekka Salonen that these problems were less evident during the NDRSO's UK premiere of his new work, Insomnia. Though Salonen's language grows ever more lush and expansive - for which read louder, longer and more expensively scored - his grumpy philosophy-student message remains unchanged. Greedy spoonfuls lifted from The Rite of Spring only underlined the lack of substance or growth in his music and though this piece is as likely as any to be taken up into the repertoire as a useful showpiece with which to complete the contemporary repertoire quota, the overall effect of Insomnia was of listening to the soundtrack to an advert for Nurofen directed for the cinema by Tony Scott.

Drama of an altogether more refined nature was found the next evening at Prom 58, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's late-night performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas under Richard Egarr. In a radical reversal of customary practice, Egarr made the grand sweep of the opening bars of the overture a hushed, melancholy mirror to the mute regret of the final chorus, thus positioning Dido's tragedy in an intimate framework from the offset. Sadly such daring gestures were rare. Few movements led naturally to the next and a general lack of intensity from the strings made the baroque guitars' wistfully concocted improvisations over two ground basses fall oddly flat. Only in The Dance of the Witches and Sailors did the OAE dig hard with the heels of their bows and this, coupled with Egarr's underbalanced harpsichord, made his reading of the opera less charismatic and organic than that of William Christie at the Barbican two years ago.

But a Dido as fine as that of Sarah Connolly - a singer whose understanding of the character's pride and vulnerability is unrivalled, whose stylistic gestures are perfectly incorporated and whose voice grows richer and more plastic year upon year - is something to be treasured. Christopher Purves likewise shook off the wimpiness of Aeneas and presented a complex, masculine and troubled hero, while D'Arcy Bleiker (Sorceress), Lucy Crowe (Spirit), Anna Dennis (First Witch), Alexandra Gibson (Second Witch), Matthew Beale (Sailor), Elizabeth Cragg (Second Woman), and Carolyn Sampson's fresh, easy Belinda formed one of the best ensemble casts the OAE have assembled.

It fell to the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle to show that contemporary orchestral music can move beyond the long shadows cast by Stravinsky. In Heiner Goebbels's Aus einem Tagebuch - a far more substantial and original work than the Salonen - the conceits of musique concréte blossomed into a bittersweet trip-hop lyricism through a dialogue between the virtuosic double-basses of the orchestra, Goebbels's eclectic industrial sampling, and the edgy, oily core ensemble of tuned percussion, harp, piano, woodwind and retro-styled brass. With the ecstatic oboe of Albrecht Mayer as our Charon, this was a journey through Stygian waters as stone after stone of fragmented recollections and musical impulses were dropped experimentally into the still pool of sound, and, oddly, was the best moment in this orchestra's Proms 55 and 56. That Rattle's Strauss is not to everyone's taste is self-evident - my suspicion is that, as a reluctant convert himself, his super-rational readings are too much geared towards converting other non-believers - hence the cruelly premeditated jackboot stamp of a boo that was heard as the reverberations of the final chord of Ein Heldenleben were still pressing through the auditorium. Boo if you must, whoever you are, but wait 'til the chord has cleared.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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