Music's healing power

PROMS: Swedish Symphony Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen; Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
It can't have been easy for our Scandinavian visitors on Sunday night. The mood inside the Albert Hall was little different from that outside Kensington Palace, where a candlelight vigil had just begun. Esa- Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra were guests of honour at someone else's wake and it had fallen to them to demonstrate "the power of music to heal and to bind us together", as Proms director Nicholas Kenyon put it. So we stood in silent tribute while they offered Elgar's Nimrod, the national anthem of mourning. After that, anything other than silence was going to sit uneasily.

And did. It wasn't Anders Hillborg's fault that his piece Liquid Marble was not, given the circumstances, what this audience wanted to hear. The rushing of microtones - somewhere between a communal scream and the wailing of the wind - was suddenly more intrusive than its composer can ever have imagined. Here was a chill, ill wind such as once blew through Sibelius's Tapiola. But with a difference. Here was nature in abstraction, nature as machine, charged and recharged by a mad, mechanical revving - running scales, running scared. At one point it mutated into a kind of cosmic squeeze-box. Knowing how it was achieved (microtonal slurs in overlapping ascent and descent, crescendo and decrescendo) in no way lessened the weirdness of the effect. Something sinister was stirring in the land of the midnight sun. The afterbirth of Sibelius.

His Third Symphony then sought to restore the natural order and balance with Salonen accentuating its leanness and concision through fastidious articulation. Rhythm is development in Sibelius. Stasis, too. Both are organic. The power of that rolling, hymn-like unison at the close of the first movement - that's evolution for you. But, in one sense, Salonen's performance fell too easily into place, was too inevitable, too tidy. I should like to have felt more of its growing pains.

Britten and Stravinsky made compelling bedfellows in the second half of the concert. Dawn Upshaw entered the strange, distracted, associative world of Arthur Rimbaud and made real theatre of the words in Britten's Les Illuminations. "Only I have the key to this savage parade." And we knew exactly what she meant, because as ever she truly shared the experience of her singing. Just as Britten so instinctively understood Rimbaud - as in feeling rather than sense - and seemed so uncannily to find the natural music for the words, so Upshaw understood here what it was that made the single glissando at the close of "Phrase" so deliciously illicit, or the eddying vocal line of "Seascape" so erotic, or "Being Beauteous", well, so beauteous. And, at the last, when the confusion of sights and sounds had finally abated, the simple (and suddenly still) unison of "Leaving" - as in been there, done that - seemed to make sense of it all. The ovation was genuine and deserved.

And the "savage parade" moved on. Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements is as subversive with rhythm as Rimbaud is with words. It's very Los Angeles, mean and urban, full of cinematic jump-cutting. There's an element of grotesque about the strutting outer movements. Ferocity tempered with absurdity. Salonen and his band caught that in the mad, reedy bassoon duet of the finale. It was a coiled-spring of a reading, one in which the cool antiquarian flutings of the central Andante-Interlude seemed more like wishful thinking than wilful incongruity. Leonard Bernstein thought this the greatest symphony of the 20th century. Bold claim. But the way Salonen nailed the sensational final chord was at the very least an endorsement of sorts.

Concert repeated 2pm today, BBC Radio 3 Edward Seckerson

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