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August 19, 2005

Worth the Wait - Anne Sofie von Otter & Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra at the Proms

Posted by David Conway

Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Sibelius
Anne Sofie von Otter
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Gustavo Dudamel
BBC Promenade Concerts 2005 (Prom no. 30)
5th August 2005

Unlike pop concerts, classical concerts normally start more or less on time. Until now the longest delay I had experienced was about twenty minutes in Kaliningrad about ten years ago, caused by the inebriation of the cello soloist - eventually he was revived sufficiently to stagger on stage, when he gave a stonkingly good performance of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, despite having some difficulty remaining on his seat.

On 5th August in the Albert Hall however the problems were of a different order. The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra had assembled onstage and tuned up and the conductor had strolled to the podium and raised his baton when, in the expectant hush, loud electronic squeaks and burbles manifested themselves from the various speakers about the Hall. It took about an hour to nail down the cause and eliminate it, making the delay something of an event in itself. On occasion the squawking stopped and we all held our breath – to let it out again with a deep groan when it recommenced.

The Swedes were admirably composed, but for the conductor, the 24-year old (but looking about 13) Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, the tension must have been agonising. He had been drafted in at the last minute to replace the indisposed Neeme Järvi (which also occasioned the dropping from the programme of a piece by the Estonian composer Eduard Tubin), and this was his UK debut. He might however have smiled, as did the orchestra, at the following exchange of choral shouting which took place between the prommers in the gallery and the arena when the feedback was at its most violent:

Gallery: The present piece of Stockhausen is a replacement for the Tubin.

Arena: Actually, this is better than Stockhausen!

Gallery: Oh, no it isn't!

This clearly demonstrates the superior class of audience we have in England; if the squeaking was a piece of subtle al-Qaida sabotage to undermine Western culture, we stocially triumphed over it.

All this excitement over, the concert itself risked being an anti-climax. We kicked off with Tchaikovsky's lurid and excessive Francesca da Rimini, a piece of indigestion the composer contracted after a visit to Bayreuth. Some hesitation, understandable in the circumstances, in ensemble and intonation aggravated one's dissatisfaction with the piece. Devoid of any of the emotional sensitivity of, say, the same composer's Romeo and Juliet, and with its crudely aggressive orchestration, it is really time to retire this warhorse from the repertoire and send it to the knacker's yard.

A perceptible increase in audience alertness indicated that the next item, Mahler's five Rückert-Lieder with Anne Sofie von Otter as soloist, was bound to be more serious fare. Dudamel, who won the 2004 Mahler conducting competition at Bamberg, and the divine Ms von Otter, fully justified this anticipation. Although the orchestra used is large, these songs were orchestrated by Mahler in chamber-music, rather than symphonic, mode, and the transparency and balance which Dudamel and his players now achieved was exemplary. Ms Otter's singing however was often revelatory. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I am lost to the world") was truly other-worldly, rapt and spell-binding, and the other songs came very close in intensity.

Had Järvi been present the second-half would have opened with the Toccata of the Estonian composer Eduard Tubin. I do not know this work and doubtless it would have been unfairly taxing on Dudamel to expect him to conjure up a performance in the very short time available. But I regret the omission. I know only two works of Tubin, his 3rd and 8th symphonies, from the recording made by Järvi, who, as an Estonian himself, has long been Tubin's greatest champion. Written in 1942 and 1960 respectively, these are powerful, cogent and passionate pieces.

Having fled to Sweden in 1944, Tubin's works were rarely played in his home country even though he seems to have reached some sort of accommodation with the Soviet regime: he died in 1982. The brief Toccata was listed in the Proms programme as marking the centenary of Tubin's birth; as far as I am aware it would have been our only chance to have heard his orchestral music live in this country to date. I hope the BBC will make amends for this, given the quality of certain music of some of this year's other centenarians. Whereas so much other music of the mid-twentieth century seems to have been written to declare how much the composer is suffering, this music seems rather to say, simply, "Listen!" – as all the greatest music does.

Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, which completed the programme, certainly qualifies on this basis. Its idiosyncratic merging of the starkness of the Fourth Symphony with the romantic impulses of the First and Second perhaps needs the weight of a Järvi to fully convince. But Dudamel brought out all its shades and colours and led us boldly through the surging closing sequence to the final lightning–flash staggered chords. This, and the encore of the March from the Karelia suite, were warmly applauded by an audience whose patience at the start of the concert had been well-rewarded.

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