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08 Aug 2014

Stravinsky : Oedipus Rex, BBC Proms

In typical Proms fashion, BBC Prom 28 saw Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex performed in an eclectic programme which started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture and also featured Electric Preludes by the contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean. Sakari Oramo,was making the first of his Proms appearances this year, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Beethoven, Brett Dean, Stravinsky Oedipus Rex, BBC Prom 28,Royal Albert Hall, London 7th August 2014

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Igor Stravinsky By George Grantham Bain Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The main work in the programme was Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, which took up the whole of the second half of the concert. The actor Rory Kinnear provided the narration, speaking Deryck Cooke's translation of Jean Cocteau's original. Kinnear was amplified, so that his narration had a rather intimate, confiding quality. It worked very well, but I did wonder whether something more monumentally declamatory might have been more in keeping with Stravinsky's vision.

The chorus plays an important role in the piece, and here the men of the BBC Singers were joined by the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus to provide a very strong choral contribution. Their opening chorus combined monumentality with some wonderfully incisive and crisply controlled rhythms. Oramo kept the fast passages quiet so that the chorus's contribution was intensified, at times almost whispering. Throughout the piece, the chorus commented on the action sometimes with crisp, chugging motifs and sometimes with stronger, darker feelings. When the Messenger (Duncan Rock) came to tell of Jocasta's death, it was the chorus which took over the major role in a bizarrely jolly chorus which the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus sang with terrifying relish and pinpoint rhythms. The final, powerful chorus was a complete tour de force.

Allan Clayton was a very strong Oedipus, displaying a combination of power, focus and control. The role requires a tenor who can sing with a reasonable amount of dramatic bite, but who can cope with Stravinsky's rather florid writing. Clayton was just about ideal, in the way his tenor rang out over the orchestra but you could hear every detail and appreciate the sense of line. He managed to combine the strongly dramatic moments with some lovely lyric ones, plus a good feel for the language; and his final, short speech was profoundly moving.

Jocasta is a relatively short role, but an important one and Hilary Summers sang her solo with a wonderful combination of directness and her familiar straight tones, but still managed to bring in a seductive element too. Her duet with Clayton's Oedipus was one of the high points of the drama, full of thrilling vocal moments and wonderful orchestral detail.

Brindley Sherratt was admirably firm and trenchant as Tiresias. Juha Uusitalo's Creon was vivid enough, but his tone was rather too blustery for my taste. Duncan Rock made a fine Messenger, with strong, dark tones and powerful delivery. He was joined by Samuel Boden's as a rather pressured Shepherd.

There were moments in the performance when the balance was not ideal, though I realise that this varies depending on where you sit in the auditorium (I was in seat H61, going through door J in the Stalls). Whilst Oramo kept the orchestra under fine control, there was a feeling that the soloists would have had a rather more favourable time if the orchestra had been in a pit, although there is no pit at the royal Albert Hall. .

The orchestra contributed some finely thrilling playing, wonderfully controlled and crisp but still powerful. This period of writing in Stravinsky's career requires performers to combine accuracy with thrilling power, the devil is always in the detail. Here all the details were present, with terrific rhythmic precision and control and some lovely solo details in the orchestra, and combining into an ideal whole.

The concert started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture the best known of the incidental music that he wrote in 1810 for Goethe's play Egmont. Throughout Oramo kept things on a tight rein, and you felt the tension, drama and shimmering excitement. I had a couple of worries, though. With the large body of strings, the balance with the woodwind did not seem ideal and in the louder tutti moments, the strings tended to obscure the wind. The ending, though controlled, seemed a little too buttoned up. I wanted the final bars to let go a bit more.

Also in the first half, Brett Dean's Electric Preludes which was written in 2011-2012 for his friend Richard Tognetti to perform on the electric violin. This is a new instrument, where the instrument functions very much like an electric guitar with the sound requiring amplification and providing scope for a wide range of electro-acoustic effects. The instrument was also equipped with extra strings, taking the sound into the cello territory. Dean has already written a concerto for the conventional violin and this new piece pits the Electric Violin against a string orchestra in six movements with evocative titles, Abandoned Playground, Topography - Papunya, Peripeteia, The Beyonds of Mirrors, Perpetuum Mobile and Berceuse.Dean's work explored the endless possibilities for variations of textures that his combination of solo electric violin and strings gave him. Each of the movements was very much a character piece, exploring a particular mood, and it was mood and texture which were important rather than specific melodic material. I have to confess that I am still not sure about the electric violin as a solo instrument, but Francesco D'Orazio was clearly a virtuoso and was finely supported by Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Robert Hugill

Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex, Beethoven: Egmont Overture; Brett Dean: Electric Preludes
Oedipus: Allan Clayton, Jocasta: Hilary Summers, Creon: Juha Uusitalo, Tiresias: Brindley Sherratt, Messenger: Duncan Rock, Shepherd: Samuel Boden, Speaker: Rory Kinnear
Francesco D'Orazio: Electric violin
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers
Sakari Oramo: Conductor
BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Prom 28, 7 August 2014

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