BBC Proms #25 – Carolina Eyck, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds: Kalevi Aho Theremin Concerto, Saariaho & Shostakovich

Prom 25 – Carolina Eyck (theremin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Aho Eight Seasons (Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra) (2011) (London premiere)
Saariaho Vista (2019) (Proms premiere)
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major Op.141 (1971)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 4 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

John Storgårds has given some memorable Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in the decade since he became this orchestra’s guest conductor, and tonight was no exception for featuring a theremin concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Its title Eight Seasons should be taken advisedly – the eight continuous sections encompassing a period from autumn to spring, as is reflected in the mostly restrained yet constantly changing textures which define a progression from the richness of Harvest to Midnight Sun with its serenity informed by new potential.

An instrument as fascinating to watch being played as it is to hear, the theremin has become the victim of its own ubiquity as an enhancer of atmosphere in film-scores and for musicians from Brian Wilson to Jonny Greenwood. Carolina Eyck was a dedicated exponent (evident in her encore-demonstration) – not least in the latter stages when her vocalise proved an enticing extension of her instrumental prowess, and the myriad timbral shifts more than compensated for the intermittent blandness of Aho’s acutely fastidious if not consistently involving music.

The layout of this piece (wind quintet and percussion alongside reduced strings) necessitated an early interval to prepare for those relatively lavish forces of Vista, Kaija Saariaho’s latest return to the orchestra and inspired by traversing the Californian coast from Los Angeles to San Diego. This is embodied over two cumulative movements – the expectancy of Horizons duly fulfilled with the mounting activity of Targets which itself subsides into an intensified recollection of the opening, now sounding as expansive as that ‘vista’ envisaged by the title.

Music so complex needs a sure hand to maintain its focus, the BBC Philharmonic responding with alacrity to Storgård’s attentive direction while he steered a convincing trajectory through what is likely Saariaho’s finest large-scale work for years – the intricacy and translucency of her writing having a panache which ensured this was manifestly a showpiece with substance. In particular, the sense of ideas being tentatively anticipated then vividly recalled added much to the evocative quality of music as formally substantial as it sounded expressively involving.

From recent Finnish orchestral works to Shostakovich’s last and most equivocal symphony is a fair step aesthetically, but Storgårds ensured the succession was a meaningful one. If it did not evince the ultimate in ominous irony, those laughs elicited from the opening movement’s stealthy activity and allusive inanity were for real – as, more regrettably, were those hesitant coughs denoting uneasy response to the slow movement’s emotional intensity as heightened by its sparseness of gesture, while not forgetting an eloquent response by cellist Peter Dixon.

Nor was the percussion found wanting in its almost concertante role, to the fore in a scherzo where the whimsical and sardonic found an unlikely accord. From its sombre initial gestures, Storgårds then had the measure of a finale whose central passacaglia built toward a powerful climax, and while tension dropped with the resumption of earlier ideas, the spectral transition into the coda was judiciously handled with the latter mesmeric in its deft profundity. Should the BBC Philharmonic need a new chief conductor, Storgårds might be worth approaching.

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

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