sat 16/12/2017

Prom 55: SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Roth | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 55: SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Roth

Prom 55: SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Roth

An emotional hail-and-farewell to the Proms from a superb German orchestra

By the time you've said their name, they've played the overture: the South-West German Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, with the latest and last in a distinguished line of music directors, François-Xavier Roth© Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The only reasonable explanation for the all too belated arrival at the Proms of the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Orchestra is that the festival’s house band, the BBC Symphony, is the one other ensemble reasonably entitled to claim the title of best orchestra for new music in the world. They came with a programme of Boulez, Ligeti and Bartók, 20th century classics all, and well-tailored to their talents. Too little, too late, as it turned out, but what an evening they gave us.

…explosante-fixe… is one of those works, following Sachs’s wise words about Walther’s Prize Song, in which the form is new but necessary for the content. Though both breathe a spirit of fantasy, one is wedded to the other (and happily so, not untypical for large-scale works by the post-war modernists), and the work springs from the urge to remember, to pay tribute, and in turn it is a tribute to the skill of Boulez and the standards he sets himself that the piece did not turn out (any more than his Rituel in memory of Maderna) as a gloomy dirge or sentimental elegy. A deep fondness ripples and sighs through it no less affectionately than in the mathematically organised musical offerings Berg made in honour of his teacher and his lover in the Chamber Concerto and Lyric Suite respectively.

More than sentiment lay behind the warmth of their reception and the bitter regret of their departure

The soul of Stravinsky, first of all, is enshrined here, but Boulez makes other, more personal homages, not least to the first flautist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Larry Beauregard, and so it was more than fitting that his direct successor, Sophie Cherrier, should once again take the central part as she has done many times, including on the composer-conductor’s definitive recording. High in the left-hand stalls, the critics’ seats were more than usually inadequate to differentiate between Cherrier and her two co-soloists, Dagmar Becker and Anne Romeis (pictured below) at either side of the stage, and to hear inside the toccata-like business which occupies stretches of this and other late works of Boulez such as Répons and Dérive II. The SWR Experimental Studio had fun bouncing the live electronics around the walls of the hall, and the musicians on stage projected their parts to match in a more extrovert account than usual, certainly less inward than their previous encounter with the score last year in Cologne, where the soloist was Emmanuel Pahud.

On that occasion François-Xavier Roth and the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg SO followed …explosante-fixe… with a cunningly devised sequence of Debussy’s Images intercut with early Ligeti, of which Lontano transferred here, in a performance it’s impossible to imagine being bettered. Slow, weightless, achingly well-tuned, it’s music this orchestra was born to play. Indeed, they gave its first performance in 1967. Now they own it, the way the Leipzig Gewandhaus does Mendelssohn and the Vienna Philharmonic Strauss.

Sophie Cherrier, Dagmar Becker and Anne Romeis in a BBC Proms performance of ...explosante-fixe...Finally at full strength, they then did Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra with phenomenal agility. For the first and only time this season, what a joy it was to feel as well as hear a German string section deliver a sonic punch in the guts. There were no particularly local, Hungarian inflections, except that at points such as the wind flurries over sustained string chords in the beginning of the Elegy, one instantly heard where Ligeti had come from. The Game of Pairs was neat but deadpan, the Interrupted Intermezzo less than a vulgar dig at Shostakovich and more an ingenious appropriation of "war music" for a rare window on a troubled soul. Even at its fastest and most furious – Roth allowing no quarter from Bartok’s challenging metronome marks – the finale had string-quartet clarity.

After the cheers that inevitably followed, Roth explained this was not only the first but also the orchestra’s last appearance at the Proms. Notwithstanding earlier protests and stays of execution, budgetary constraints have finally spelled doom for the Baden-Baden and Freiburg orchestra, which will soon merge with its sister band in Stuttgart. Tears were shed, and after they had played the first section of Schubert’s Rosamunde interlude for an encore, the musicians were applauded off the stage. In my 25 years of Proms attendance, this has occurred once before, with the first visit of the Berlin Philharmonic. We would have applauded them back on, had they more music to play. More than sentiment lay behind the warmth of their reception and the bitter regret of their departure. They will be missed, most of all by the composers who will not now gain a hearing, or an expert reading, and the rest of us will be poorer for it. Who will play the new music?

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

Slow, weightless, achingly well-tuned, it’s music this orchestra was born to play

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