sat 20/07/2024

Proms 29 / 30, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Dausgaard review - Bach Brandenburgs and beyond | reviews, news & interviews

Proms 29 / 30, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Dausgaard review - Bach Brandenburgs and beyond

Proms 29 / 30, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Dausgaard review - Bach Brandenburgs and beyond

Strong instrumental soloists provided some highlights in a long day

A genuine star: charismatic flautist Claire Chase All images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

A complex Swedish product to unpack, this one. Someone in the BBC must have worked out that it could do with a detailed instruction manual to help people with the task: the programme booklet duly ran to a full 50 pages.

There were two sets of components: firstly, all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, performed by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and soloists. Plus, alongside each concerto, a newly commissioned companion piece by a prominent composer. The 12 works, six by Bach plus the six new pieces, were spread over two Proms on Sunday. Time required for complete assembly of the finished object including breaks: just under seven hours.

The concept and the origins of this big project are explained in David Nice’s 2015 piece, which describes an earlier version of it, witnessed in the orchestra’s home town of Örebro, at which time it was still a work in progress. The first two pieces, by Uri Caine (a companion for Brandenburg No. 5) and by Steven Mackey (for No. 2) were ready. Yesterday's marathon included the other four: pieces by Mark Anthony Turnage (for No. 1), Anders Hillborg (No. 3), Olga Neuwirth (No.4) and Brett Dean (No.6). All six of these performances were UK premières.

These two Proms served as a reminder of the many ways in which composers can respond to Bach. The Brandenburg concertos are also vehicles for soloists or groups of soloists, and the new pieces were presented with the talents of specific players in mind.

Perhaps the most obvious way to “update” Bach is to produce variants of the Stravinsky neo-classical style, and both the Steven Mackey and the Uri Caine pieces took that route. Both were programmed in the second half of the concerts, and, partly though not entirely because of that, both pieces seemed to outstay their welcome, with people walking out.

One of the joys of hearing Uri Caine is that, because his classical knowledge is so deep, he can transport the listener somewhere completely unexpected. There was a moment like that when he suddenly launched into the piú mosso theme from the last movement of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto. But such moments of wild and joyous inspiration were all too infrequent. The piece Hamsa revels in off-kilter rhythms. For the orchestra that was the opportunity for them to show all the work that had gone in to piece the puzzle together, but for Caine and the other fine soloists, eloquent violinist Antje Weithaas, and flautist Fiona Kelly, blessed with a wonderful sound, it seemed something of a straitjacket. I had similar reservations about the last piece played at the end of the second concert, Steven Mackey’s Triceros built around the presence of Swedish trumpet virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger. Mackey’s default mode was just a tad too motoric and Nyman-ish for me.

If there was a Bach connection in Marc Antony Turnage’s piece, I confess to having missed it

For me, there was one stand-out piece among the six, the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s Aello - Ballet Mecanomorphe. It was a display vehicle for the charismatic American flautist Claire Chase, and she responded to the task with energy, inventiveness, humour, and the repeated use of a loud “swoosh” sound on the flute. The orchestral writing also had some inventive new angles, a real sense of broadening of the sound one expects from a string orchestra, notably an eerie spectral section of sul ponticello harmonics.

Another very well received performance was Anders Hillborg’s Bach Materia, a companion piece for Brandenburg No. 1, which brought to the fore the inventiveness and protean energy of violinist Pekka Kuusisto (pictured above). A moment to treasure was his dialogue with the SCO’s principal bassist, the Québecois Sébastien Dubé, where the latter didn’t just play but also vocalised his bass solo-ing in the manner of Slam Stewart. Kuusisto himself also sang, and later whistled. The orchestral writing tended to be more elegaic, slow-moving, and not so easy to warm to.

If there was a Bach connection in Marc Antony Turnage’s piece, I confess to having missed it. The work was effectively a concerto slow movement designed as a vehicle for American cellist Maya Beiser (pictured below), with heart-on-sleeve echoes of Kol Nidrei. It proved popular, and there was also another use of the non-concordant bowing that Turnage also used as an expressive device in his arrangement of Joni Mitchell's Two Grey Rooms for Claire Martin.Proms

The piece by Brett Dean, Approach - Prelude to a Canon, was above all a vehicle for Tabea Zimmermann, whose expressive power on the viola is always mesmerising. It was performed as a prelude to the Brandenburg Concerto. Knowing that the Bach was just around the corner, Dean’s games of anticipation and delay simply went on for too long. Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 itself paired Tabea Zimmerman with Brett Dean as soloists. Yes, Dean was once in the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic, but on this occasion, Zimmermann-Dean was a rather obvious mismatch.

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to well-executed, historically informed performances of Bach. The audience at the Royal Albert Hall clearly enjoyed each time it could return to the certainty and the familiarity of the great master, but I kept having the impression that most of the rehearsal time had been given to the new commissions, with the idea that the Cantor from Leipzig could basically take care of himself. As Bach performances to set alongside those of, say, Masaaki Suzuki, John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock or Gottfried von der Golz, these readings too often came across as under-prepared, muddy and accident-prone. Dausgaard’s conducting, precise and decisive in the new pieces, didn’t seem to help ensemble in the Bach, and his brake-to-the-floor ritenuto at the end of each movement sounded more mannered each time he did one.

The Bach performances were at their best when the soloists were let free and put to the fore. Several have been mentioned already, but one who made a real mark on this event (but didn’t have any role in the new pieces) was Mahan Esfahani. His way of clarifying and making musical sense of the antics of the cadenza from Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 was a genuine highlight of this very long day.



I agree that the new "companion" pieces tended to be on the long side. Programme book timings totalled 95 minutes for Bach and 117 for his "companion composers", who might have followed the master's example of economy with advantage. The early exits were very few and in my observation the large audience - some 3 1/2 thousand in my rough estimation - followed the long double event with interest and appreciation. To my mind the Bach performances had an admirable flow and energy.

A thoughtful comment, thanks. I've been chided elsewhere for having been "too generous" by giving it three I guess there's a balance to be struck. Your timings analysis makes its point well. I did some nerdy sums too: the anticipated timings for the first concert were 109 minutes of music plus a 20 minute interval. Yet the actual concert ran to a full 40 minutes longer than that, and we didn't get much change back from three hours. Which included an awful lot of laborious re-setting of the stage. So some fatigue was understandable.

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