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Sirens and Scheherazade, Prom 18
30 Jul 2017

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

Sirens and Scheherazade, Prom 18

A review by Claire Seymour

Ida Falk Winland

Photo credit: Tilo Stengel

 

For his largest and longest work to date, Sirens, Swedish composer Anders Hillborg has turned to Homer’s account of Odysseus being bound to his ship’s mast so that he might hear the eponymous enchanters’ song but resist its lure - and thus avoid the fate of the shipwrecked sailors who have been enticed to their doom on the rocky coast of the sirens’ island. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and first performed in 2011, Sirens was receiving its UK première in this Prom the theme of which was heroics on the high seas.

Homer does not name his sirens but he does give their number as two, and Hillborg’s work is scored for two solo sopranos, mixed chorus and large orchestra. The roles of the mantic temptresses, who with increasing desperation attempt to mesmerise Odysseus with their song, were taken by Swedish sopranos Hannah Holgersson and Ida Falk Winland, who recorded Sirens with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Swedish Radio Choir and Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, on the BIS label in 2015. Here, the sopranos were joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the American conductor James Gaffigan, who was making his Proms debut.

It’s always tempting to identify what is described as a ‘Nordic’ sound - what we imagine as a musical embodiment of the cool stillness and spaciousness of the landscape - and Hillborg’s spectral whispers, chord clusters, sustained harmonies and minimalist gestures might encourage one to use this label. We hear weeping winds; strain after the highest-lying violins; feel dark, unearthly tremors.

Hillborg has stated that the challenge was to create music that was simultaneously irresistibly beautiful and unnervingly menacing. Certainly, both the sensuous and the uneasiness deepened with the entry of the chorus whose floating cries and whistles reverberated around the hall. Time and movement seemed suspended, as if we were falling into a void. Textures would accumulate, as the sound mass seemed almost to tremble; then an individual instrumental voice would pierce through, a ghostly presence. A high ringing ‘whine’ was produced by the percussionists’ fingers, sliding along the edge of two glasses.

hannah_holgersson_Mats scarsson.jpg Hannah Holgersson. Photo credit: Mats Oscarsson.

Winland took the higher of the two solo parts, her soprano rising above the massed sound with crystalline purity and sheen, but Holgersson’s lower lying melodies communicated with equal impact and strength, and the two singers’ voices blended persuasively.

There is no doubt that Sirens is intoxicating. I felt like Odysseus himself, hypnotised and compelled to submit to the sonic beauty of Hillborg’s score. The dreamlike ambience is dangerously destabilising: are the voices Odysseus hears real or imagined?

What was less satisfying was the absence of any definition in the delivery of the text - essentially this was wordless vocalise - with the result that the work had no clear narrative character, though Gaffigan did convey the musical structure’s sense of accumulating danger. Moreover, the text is a combination of Homer, translated into English, and Hillborg, but the latter’s anachronistic contributions sit uncomfortably against Homer’s poetry: ‘Breathe them, hear them, plunge into them. Drown in their sweetness, We’d love to turn you on.’

At the end of Homer’s episode, the sirens declare, ‘No life on earth can be hid from our dreaming … We will take you to the crack between the worlds’. Sirens drifts ambiguously into silence: has Odysseus sailed on, and the defeated sirens perished, or has he succumbed?

The concert opened with the swashbuckling swagger of the overture of Erich Korngold’s score for the 1940s classic film The Sea Hawk in which Errol Flynn played ‘Geoffrey Thorpe’, the fictional Elizabethan privateer who commanded marauding raids against the Spanish fleets to fill the coffers of the English treasury. (At the time, commentators noted parallels between the film and the contemporary political situation: with Hitler-like condescension, King Philip of Spain declares that he will only cease his conquests when the entire world is under his dominion, while the Elizabethan courts policy of appeasement raised similarities with Chamberlain.)

The BBCSO brass provided lots of bite and brilliance but Gaffigan balanced the punchy derring-do with nostalgic warmth in the more lyrical episodes, the solo flute singing sweetly above expressive cello support, and guest leader Sarah Christian providing an eloquent violin solo.

The sea stories after the interval came courtesy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in which Gaffigan drew stylish, disciplined playing from the BBCSO. But while the rhythmic lilt was persuasive, and the colours clearly defined, I expected the oriental rhetoric to be delivered with rather more flamboyance, as the music swept through Sinbad’s exploits on the open seas and the swirling Festival of Baghdad. The brassy climax was fittingly rousing, though, after which the solo violin brought the evening’s story-telling to a close and the ship returned home to calm waters.

Claire Seymour

Korngold: The Sea Hawk - overture; Anders Hillborg: Sirens; Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade - symphonic suite (Op.35)

Hannah Holgersson (soprano), Ida Falk Winland (soprano), James Gaffigan (conductor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Friday 28th July 2017.

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