Astonishing virtuosity at the BBC Proms

BBC Proms 2018: Prom 4

Led by their Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena, the highly professional BBC Philharmonic last night delivered a polished and sure-footed performance consisting of Magnus Lindberg’s colourful and exotic Clarinet Concerto followed in the second half by Shostakovich’s epic 7th (Leningrad) Symphony.

Clarinettist Mark Simpson proved to be something of a revelation throughout this performance. Lindberg’s work makes incredible demands of the solo performer and if ever there were a man who could reasonably claim to be the Paganini of the Clarinet, this might be just the chap.

Akin to taking a journey through a musical kaleidoscope packed with shifting landscapes and a steady stream of new tonal colours, this is the kind of music that, had Claude Debussy lived into the 1920’s or perhaps 1930’s might have conceived. The entire canon of virtuosic demands was showcased here:- trills against a backdrop of impressionist and at times, avant-garde sounds; glissandos (playing like a distant rehearsal to the opening of Rhapsody in Blue) and one sparkling cadenza after another.

There appeared at times to be nothing that this hugely talented soloist could not do – in particular, the solo near the end of the concerto was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a classical music stage – forget air guitar, this was air clarinet! It begged the question of how Simpson was managing his breath control let alone avoiding even one misplaced note or slip. Highly impressive stuff.

A note of credit must also go to the orchestra and their leader for their part here; journeying through this fantasy world of jazzy, dream-like sounds required precision and exactitude. Mena is not a particularly demonstrative conductor, preferring instead to make subtle and understated movements with his baton, however this approach seems to work perfectly with every nuanced glance transmitting its unique message and resulting in the desire response from the assembled players.

During the sections which incorporated the brass instruments, their muted nature imbued the texture with a light and ethereal layer; the luxurious sheen of the strings adding further polish.

The concerto was not without a sense of humour; at times, the writing called for the clarinettist to produce some pretty unorthodox sounds – the depth and range of the that instrument’s capabilities probed to the ultimate degree. Sustained clamour led to a brief encore which again aptly illustrated the technical capabilities of the soloist – at times, Simpson transformed the sound of his instrument more into a saxophone than a clarinet. Hats off to this immensely talented performer.

Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony followed after the interval and was performed with strength, vigour but also empathy and delicacy where it was called for.

Opting for a strong and strident tempo with which to open the symphony – we heard the “pride” theme, which Shostakovich used to demonstrate the Russian mentality in the face of impending danger. The pristine and clear sound continued as in the first half of the concert; the playing was structured and unified whilst the woodwind section in particular played clear and enunciated passages.

Special mention to the bassoon players who drew further exploration out of the first theme, leading all the way to the wistful solo violin, providing an image of nostalgic innocence with the old order about to be swept away by the forthcoming invasion theme. The orchestral wall of sound that came later in the gigantic ostinato created a palpable sense of the terrifying spectre of advancing Nazi troops. Mena led the players expertly from pin drop silence through to crashing chaos with small, deft movements in this slowest burning of crescendos.

The baton is passed around the orchestra as the Nazis inch ever closer, forming a ring around the beleaguered city. The theme continues to take on an ever more nightmarish theme – truly menacing. It was a sobering thought to imagine what the original performance must have been like, the assembled group of musicians half starved as the authorities ordered to blast the music through loudspeakers at the encircling enemy. The message from Shostakovich quite clearly: “this is a city which cannot be conquered.”

The music then swelled to an ear-splitting climax, but with no loss of important detail – all the important orchestral details kept in check. As the symphony progressed, each and every musician had their opportunity to recite the various sections with they were entrusted with – further evidence if required on display of the huge professionalism and seasoned nature of this excellent orchestra. Particularly impressive was the measure of control around dynamic markings, Mena able to sustain a barely audible, whisper-like volume which requires huge amounts of precision and concentration – all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum.

The work followed through to its’ natural conclusion – a grand and defiant firework of an ending in C major. A sense prevails throughout the final movement than an exploration of all the various tenets of the human condition are by turns evaluated, examined on merit before being discarded along the way to the end of the journey. There was little to dispute in this account of the great work and as the blaring conclusion passed with a real bang, a fitting tribute was afforded to the memory of all those who suffered during this dark episode of history.