Prom 29/30: Brandenburg Concertos Project
Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard
Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2018
One of the more unusual of this year’s BBC Proms were two related concerts given by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under their conductor Thomas Dausgaard. Over an afternoon and evening Prom, they performed all six Bach Brandenburg Concertos, each accompanied by companion pieces, commissioned by the orchestra, to partner each of the Brandenburgs. An ambitious project, that got close to working, but ultimately, from my point of view, didn’t. As an early music specialist, I do find modern instrument performances of Bach problematical. Although they certainly didn’t over-romanticize their interpretations, the sound world was one I wasn’t used to, at least, not since my youth. And with so many composers eager to write for period instruments, I think a real opportunity has been missed, from the Proms point of view, although the project has certainly done the Swedish Chamber Orchestra no harm.
The orchestra, despite its national-sounding name, is based in the small university city of Örebro, in the lake region about 200km west of Stockholm. As a Swedish lady, an obvious fan, sitting next to me put it, they are a “provincial orchestra”. The upgraded their name in 1995 from the former Örebro Chamber Orchestra. In this project, heard here for the first time in the UK, they are certainly punching above their weight. Their first concert included the odd-numbered Brandenburgs, alongside their companion pieces, starting with the Concerto No 1 in F major. The sound of baroque horns is one of the delights of this concerto but, although the modern horns had their fair share of intonation problems, the distinctive tone and tuning of their predecessor was sadly missing. As Lindsay Kemp wrote in his intelligent programme notes, Bach’s use of the horns was intended to represent “rude hunting calls” challenging the more sedate orchestral instruments, although on this occasion the effect was muted.
The first commission was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s, Maya, a fascinating piece that, as far as I could discern, had little or nothing to do with Bach. It was written for cellist Maya Beiser and was the first of the invitations to be submitted. Despite the requirement of using the same orchestral forces as Bach (albeit enlarged), the extended soulful lament was about as far from Bach as you could get. With more than a nod towards John Tavener’s 1998 Protecting Veil from the start, it sounded like the slow movement of a cello concerto. Beautifully played by the exotically dressed Maya Beiser, it’s ethereal and evocative mood made it one the best of the six new works, even if Bach was a mere shadow. Slowly unfolding towards a restrained central climax before subsiding, it lasted around 16 minutes, nearly as long as the three-movement Brandenburg.
A rather too punchy performance of the third Brandenburg Concerto followed, the two-chord middle Adagio replaced by a short sequence by Anders Hillborg, who also composed the companion composition, Bach Materia. Despite it being very clearly a work for nine soloists, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, wearing his hair in what I think is called a “man-bun” (making him look like a teapot), seemed to think it was all about him, not least through his exaggerated look-at-me his gestures. Like Turnage’s Maya, Hillborg’s Bach Materia was written specifically for the soloist, in this case, Pekka Kuusisto. On this occasion, it did seem to be all about him, and his extended improvisations must have avoided Hillborg quite a bit of time in composing. At 20 minutes long, it lasted about twice the length of Brandenburg 3. Failing to find a middle way between serious music and pantomime, both composer and soloist chose to veer towards the latter, with some bizarre vocalising, whistling and other awkward sounding effects, several involved bass player Sebastien Dubé, clearly something of a character. Again, the link with Bach seemed superficial, largely consisting of jazzed-up quotes. It seemed to have been created from a series of ‘special’ effects, starting with a rather silly ‘tuning procedure’ that dissolves into something approaching music, all before the conductor took charge. And so it went on . . . and on, overstaying its welcome by a considerable margin. Am I alone in finding this sort of thing a bit of an insult to Bach?
After the interval came Brandenburg 5, and another chance for showing off, this time from the harpsichord player (wearing what looked like a nightshirt), whose increasingly percussive playing became a distraction. Far more refined playing came from the excellent Fiona Kelly and Antje Weithaas on flute and violin. It was followed by Uri Caine’s Hamsa, a 30-minute piece, again dominated by improvisation, this time from the composer himself, playing the piano that had replaced the harpsichord of the Brandenburg Concerto. A rhapsodic three-movement piece based on sections of Bach, albeit with its own moments of silliness, not least with half the orchestra waving orange tubes around in the air, creating a weird wind effect. Why do composers feel the need to do that?
At nearly three hours of music, this was a big play for the musicians of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and a big listen for the audience, many of which would have missed the start of the Proms Plus Talk.
The evening concert featured the even-numbered Brandenburg’s, starting with the fourth. The two very modern looking recorders were very well played by Per Gross and Katarina Widell – their Andante was a delight. Violinist Pekka Kuusisto yet again proved himself reluctant to accept that he was merely one of three soloists. There followed one of the more curious of the new compositions out of a generally curious bunch: Olga Neuwirth’s, Aello – ballet mécanomorphe. Too clever by half, she managed to incorporate a typewriter and a synthesizer that produced a very artificial harpsichord sound and a rather more effective glass harmonica sound together with the solo instruments of flute and a pair of muted trumpets. The weird opening chord drew quick attention to the fact that the instruments were in three different tunings and pitches, with the synthesizer and second violins a quarter-tone lower and the cellos a sixth-tone higher than the rest of the instruments, who were at concert pitch. Even the programme note referred to the result as a “cacophony”. Claire Chase excelled in what must have been a complicated flute part, as did Anders Hemstrõm and Margit Csõkmer on trumpets. The synthesizer was played by Oskar Ekberg. The paper from the typewriter was handed to a front row promenader.
Brett Dean’s Approach – Prelude to a Canon was intended as a prelude to Brandenburg 6, building on Bach’s use of counterpoint between his two viola parts. As a viola player himself (like Bach), Dean specifically asked for this concerto and played one of the two viola parts in this performance – the other played by Tabea Zimmermann. The opening conflict between the two violas soon leads to a dreamy sequence, punctuated by the tiny plinkity-plonks of a harpsichord melody, the mood generally continuing with denser moments as the two violas compete and coalesce, in canon, building on clear elements of Bach before eventually merging imperceptibly into Brandenburg 6. At about the same length as the Bach, it made for an effect counterbalance and, together with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s, Maya, ended as one of my joint picks of the evening. The Bach itself, although not without glitches, was also the best interpretation of the evening.
After the interval, we heard Brandenburg 2 with its four soloists, flute, oboe, violin, and trumpet, the latter spoiled by some very wayward playing, and over-loud from Håkan Hardenberger. Unfortunately, the segued Steven Mackey Triceros put the focus on the trumpet rather than the other three soloists.