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August 10, 2014 9:04 pm
For the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the long Proms season must sometimes look as daunting as captaining a test series in cricket. In addition, this year Sakari Oramo has the prospect of his first time in charge of the Last Night of the Proms ahead of him, an event some of his predecessors have admitted they never enjoyed.
In the run-up to that particular hurdle, Oramo is performing a modest, if contrasting selection of four other Proms, including one as violinist in the lunchtime chamber music series at Cadogan Hall. None of the others, though, is as eclectic as this programme, which brought together Beethoven, Australian composer Brett Dean and Stravinsky.
A soggy start to Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, with the players in two minds about co-ordination, was less than the decisive call to attention that must have been in Beethoven’s mind, though the performance gained in confidence as it went along.
Brett Dean wrote Electric Preludes in 2011-12 for a violinist friend to play on a new instrument, a six-string electric violin. Its six short, atmospheric pieces set the larger-than-life amplified violin, often echoing as if in a world of its own, against the eerie accompaniment of a string orchestra. One of the Preludes is called “The Beyonds of Mirrors” and that might stand for them all – violins, solo and communal, viewed in different spatial dimensions, an idea that was always interesting, if not especially rich musically. Francesco D’Orazio was the enterprising soloist, creating both ugly scraping and hauntingly plaintive sounds.
It was an abrupt about-turn from there to a grand and powerful performance of Stravinsky’s one-act opera Oedipus Rex. This can be a difficult work to bring off, but Oramo scored strongly thanks to the scale on which he imagined the music, and not least the high-quality choral singing of the men’s voices of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus. Aside from Allan Clayton’s clarion-clear, effortless Oedipus, the cast was unexceptional, Hilary Summers rather soft-grained as Jocasta, Juha Uusitalo lacking authority as Creon. It was the power unleashed by Oramo, with his BBC forces, that revealed Stravinsky’s opera in its full, monumental glory.
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