After a strong opening weekend, the 2011 Proms is now settling into itself with a variety of semi-themed and non-themed events. Tonight's Prom, with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, appropriately enough focuses on French music for its first half, a theme that runs through this year's schedule.
Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliées, from 1930, is a wonderful early example of the composer's Christian-informed, quasi-ritualistic programme music that yet undermines specificity of programme at every turn, principally through the quite uniquely evocative musical language being employed.
The wonderfully suggestive string opening to the work here graduated into a Sibelius-like halo effect, tension winding slowly tighter as the intensity of the long, singing string lines melted into the surrounding wind chords. Myung-Whun Chung caught the rushing fury of the middle passages, the sins of humanity section, very well, with spiky brass and drums driving the piece into a state of Soviet apoplexy, which the radiant concluding sacramental section, following a stolid reprise of the opening, resolved into a moving modernistic haziness.
Pascal Dusapin's music - formally experimental and emotionally and orchestrally rich as it is - makes an excellent companion to Messiaen's similarly-informed, though historically precedent, work. The substantial orchestral concerto being given its UK premiere (only three weeks after its world premiere) this evening, Morning in Long Island, is typical of the composer in its ebbing and flowing around a core set of musical ideas, whether they be precise motifs, as in the hiccupping brass gestures of the opening, which are soon developed on a grand scale by the rest of the large orchestra, or, alternately, broad grids of material, as in the oppositional playing off of the slow, brooding string music, and the faster turbulence of the middle (in parts) and final sections, a turbulence which seems to contain an elaborated shadow of the slow musicís inner character.
Morning in Long Island uses as a guiding metaphor the image of rocks marked with arrows signalling the flows of water erosion on their surfaces. This metaphor seems apt to our experience of the piece tonight; the music flowed in the first third through a series of deliberate and stately waves akin to early-Ligeti, diverted for a busier developmental middle featuring brass interjections from the main hall, a middle that yet criss-crossed back to directions suggested in the opening (particularly in the tonal concentration, the scaffolding of the long string lines, and the recalls of a harp soloist), before two large climaxes ushered in the fragmented propulsions of the percussion-heavy canonic and cacophonic final section.
Morning in Long Island is a thrilling mature piece, and Chung's performance here attended particularly well to this aspect of concentrated, deliberate maturity, drawing out the long paragraphs of material with a composer's ear for detail and overall design. The very warm reception given to Dusapin at the close, meanwhile, was evidence of how well both he and the performers had done their job.
Beethoven's Triple Concerto, heard after the break, may not itself be of French providence, but the French theme was nevertheless maintained, both through the French orchestra, and the exciting line-up of French soloists; Frank Braley, and Renaud and Gautier Capuçon.
After the extended focus and intensity of the Dusapin, the Beethoven worked wonderfully in alleviating tension and increasing levity. Though of the composerís Middle Period, and though it attempts bold formal and stylistic experiments - as in the truncated slow movement suddenly shifting into the Polish dance of the Finale, or the teasing laying out of themes by soloists and orchestra right at the beginning, or indeed the very selection of violin, cello, and piano as soloists in the first place - the Triple Concerto feels less fixated on heroic narratives, and more focussed on musical ingenuity and brightness of feel, than other works of the same period.
The soloists here displayed a clear affinity both for the music and for each other. They played with elegant mutual sympathy in the first movement (the swapping and then blending of themes between emotionally opulent violin and cello, and the alternating lightness of touch and hints of shade on the piano, were particularly impressive); with gushing, portamento-heavy (in the strings) emotion in the second; and with springy lustre in the Finale. The orchestra, too, entered into this spirit of collegiate alliance, balancing out the vivid but obliging contributions of the soloists with a fresh spirit of its own, particularly in the beautifully-shaped opening salvos, and the driving momentum of the Finale. A thoroughly enjoyable evening, then, which was full of contrast, vibrancy, and drive.
Photo: Frank Braley, Renaud and Gautier Capuçon