Prom 67: Sakari Oramo conducts Sibelius

“Grains of sand and used condoms are spat in my face”, sang Nora Fischer during the UK premiere of Louis Andriessen’s The Only One. Based on Flemish poet Delphine Lecompte’s debut collection The Animals Within Me, the song-cycle often sounded like corrupted cabaret. It began promisingly in a minimalist mode, Sakari Oramo’s BBC Symphony Orchestra turning tense repeated figures through different time signatures. Then Fischer entered, dressed in green socks, frilly skirt and glittery jacket. The Dutch soprano communicated the blunt surrealism of Lecompte’s poems with clarity and theatricality, from innocent mews to petulant squawks and world-weary groans. During instrumental sections, Fischer wandered through the orchestra or departed the stage to change attire. Having first appeared as a “crazy bird-like child” (her words), she ended as a sardonic worn-woman in sober black suit and heels.

Despite Fischer’s convincing characterisation, the piece otherwise had an almost pantomime feel. Andriessen’s use of discordance was jarring but lacked jeopardy: tired semi-tone shifts and diarrhoeal bassoon blurts were more redolent of a handlebar moustache than a handgun. Erratic changes in mood quickly became predictable, while Fischer’s grating, amplified vocals rarely melded with the orchestra. Apart from the noirish chords that introduced “Broken Morning”, the addition of electric guitar and bass seemed more a statement than a requirement – the 80-year-old composer writes in the programme that he has “trouble with the traditional instrumentation of the symphony orchestra”.

Another proms premiere, Judith Weir’s 1995 Forest sounded more interesting on paper than in performance. Budding from a single lyrical motif, Weir’s take on German Romanticism attempts to replicate organic growth in fast forward as a forest blooms from a single flower. Forest may not stray into the dark undergrowth typically explored in fairytales and folklore, yet verdant string sections, lofty brass and glowing marimbas impressed a fantastical sense of wonder.

Opening proceedings, Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain invoked a more uncanny form of the supernatural. Inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short-story St John’s Eve, the twelve-minute tone-poem summoned the beguiling, fevered spirit of a Witches’ Black Sabbath. Amid whirling strings and baleful brass clusters, a debauched waltz broke out only for a sudden hush to descend over the orchestra, as if the witches had been caught with their sacrifice dangling over the cauldron. Oramo skilfully manipulated tempo to intensify Bare Mountain’s unhinged revelry, speeding up the waltz only to cast a silent spell before easing into its slower, stately brass section. After sinister sorcery came a soothing sunrise: morning-bell tolls, drowsy harp ripples and a lambent flute solo promising to conceal nocturnal mischief.

After hearing the original 1915 sketch in Prom 20, the evening ended with the definitive 1919 version of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. Under Oramo, the opening movement sounded luminous, monumental. Pregnant horn and bassoon motifs swelled into undulating waves of sound that threatened to break only to ebb away, lapping benignly on the shore. Though glimmers of dissonance lurked beneath, plucked strings and carefree flutes typified the second movement, goading the symphony to its climax. As the triumphant ‘Swan Hymn’ surfaced – Sibelius wrote the finale in April 1915 after witnessing a skein of sixteen swans circling overhead – the music fell into a majestic swaying motion. Oramo accentuated the symphony’s dynamic extremes, the BBCSO whispering the movement’s muted string build before radiant trumpets and six sawtooth chords induced a sublime finale.


Featured image: Chris Christodoulou

Sam Taylor is an arts journalist who recently graduated with an English degree from UCL. He writes film and music reviews for the Financial Times, conducts interviews for The Cusp and edits London Student’s Review section. He has also been published by Jazzwise and The Independent and plays lead guitar in alt-rock band Where’s John?

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