Prom 5 was the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. The crowd-puller was Richard Strauss's setting of Nietzsche's "Also sprach Zarathustra". Since the Karajan recording and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the opening music "Sunrise" has been both a showcase for hifi sound and a fairly sure spine-tingler even at home. With a very full orchestra and underscored by the lowest notes of the magnificent Harrison organ of the Albert Hall, the effect was certainly electrifying and of course there was no hint of hifi overload as this was a live performance.
Therafter, Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic exposed the many layers and rich scoring of Richard Strauss' massive score. I'm not sure the tussle between light and dark was a priority for them but they teased the dying final moments of the score out to full dramatic effect, complete with a Proms pause of at least ten seconds, despite the television lights having come on somewhat abruptly just at the grief-ridden climax.
Anne Schwanewilms, soprano, joined the platform wearing a bright red costume, one layer of which she discarded after the first of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs. Her performance gave flight to larks and the soul as they flew upwards and she teased the emotional content both out of the words and from the extended melody of the settings. Very beautiful and not at all gloomy, despite the subject of Herman Hesse's three poems.
Anther pleasures of a promeade season ticket, apart from the music, are the acquaintances and encounters. In the interval of Prom 2, I enjoyed a few words with a couple of the interns who are acting as Door Managers. Their first night on duty, they were awed by the orderly crowd and the minutiae of the etiquette and customs of the arena.
Around me this evening were a mother and two daughters, all with wild long hair. Mother and eldest daughter evidently know their music but younger daughter soon tired of standing loking around or through older people and became fidgety. This opened conversation between me and the bearded guy standing the other side of me from the small family group. This was his fifth night in the arena (being Prom 5). He was hoping he could come again tomorrow but it depended on his daughter's baby not being born... The fidgety child sat out the second half of the concert on the floor as a number of promenaders hadn't come back for the second half.
If part one was about layers then part two was about contrasting tones and timbres, building tension and then dissipating. Kaija Saariaho's "Laterna magica" portays a hand-cranked magic lantern movie projector, the images appearing faster and faster until the illusion of motion is achieved. A Finnish lady, her techniques have more to do with Paris and IRCAM, and showed great maturity of technique. She deploys micro tones but not oppressively, she uses tape and electronic sound but in sympathetic combination with the traditional orchestra. It was good to see Kaija Saariaho come to the platform to receive applause. My bearded co-promenader was not so impressed and longed for the tunes of the Sibelius, but to my ear, "Laterna magica" problay appears as strange to us now as Sibelius's seventh symphony did at its UK premiere in December 1927.
Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic emphasised the layers and the timbres of Jean Sibelius' sombre music. To my mind this was to the detriment of the searing barren tension of the piece but tonight's performance showed another aspect to this piece: maybe it's too simple to suggest that a conductor from the heat of Spain doesn't understand the barren wastes of the land of permafrost and the midnight sun.
Prom 5: Strauss, Saariaho & Sibelius
R. Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
R. Strauss: Four Last Songs
Kaija Saariaho: Laterna magica (UK Premiere)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major
Anne Schwanewilms, soprano
Juanjo Mena, conductor