Thursday, 26 January 2012

Il Prigionero, Philharmonia at RFH

Tonight I found myself at an Amnesty International event. I say found, as I had intended to attend a concert which included a rare opportunity to hear Luigi Dallapiccola's single-stretch opera Il Prigionero. What with the concert also comprising Beethoven's fifth symphony, as well as Amnesty's iconic lighted candle as part of the operatic semi-staging, there was no getting away from the political context of the works performed.

The symphony itself was a peculiar affair, as if the orchestra were waiting to see where the conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was taking them. The opening gestures asked questions, lacking reportage or even drama. The amplitude of the dynamics was also odd, violent but not always contiguous. It was as if the performance were predicated on the work of he second half (certainly all eight double basses were retained for both pieces). That said, the fugue subject of the third movement rose with impeccable ensemble from the low strings. This was also the first time I had heard the ghost of the knocking theme in the violas in the second movement. In fact, the violas were the prize section of this performance, managing a vocal quality in the first movement where all else seemed comparatively complacent. Ensemble was never an issue then, only purpose.

Il Prigionero is a surprisingly tonal serial work, wearing its structural formality without shame. That said, it sits closer to the mainland of Wozzeck than the promontory of Bluebeard's Castle, with Berg's lyricism and orchestration a more consistent feature than the flashes of Bartok's soundworld. The orchestra is large and made one hell of a sound. As Dallapiccola's compatriot company Pirelli maintains though, power is nothing without control. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia have proved over their few seasons together that they do control at high torque, carolling the spasms and sheer voluminousness of late romantic and modernist masterworks without hedging their bets. Il Prigionero is a curiously classical composition but its rigour doesn't preclude expressionism in the music's core. The punching and stabbing of the orchestra, written into the rhythmic complexities of the music is the uncomfortable heart of Il Prigionero (and gives the lie to the sinister, oleaginous Inquisitor - sung as such by the routinely excellent Peter Hoare - whose promises are about as cast-iron as the candle he takes it upon himself to snuff out).

Oxymoronically, the most explosive expressionism of the work is reserved to what amounts to a direct, thematic quotation. The prisoner believes that he has been set free when he sees that his cell door is open. Emancipation comes in the form of a colossal C major chord, scored for everything in the auditorium, including the organ and chorus; this is the hammer blow of the fifth door of Bartok's Bluebeard but more pertinently to this concert, the opening of the final movement of Beethoven's symphony.

The incisiveness of the performance started from the very back of the room then. Philharmonia Voices did not hide behind their amplification, singing with an axe-head of ensemble and bite. Even organist Iain Farrington managed to conjure the same from the console beside them at this moment. Sectional ensemble seems to be a defining character of the orchestra. Certainly the thrust of the performance gained from the cleanliness and incisiveness of, above all, the brass and upper string attack. The harp and woodwind textures seemed more like glitter than the mist being pumped into the auditorium as a result of this clarity.

With all this, Lauri Vasar as the eponymous inmate couldn't have asked for a better platform upon which to spend an hour bemoaning his bondage. The baritone took full advantage of it with text and notes in total alignment. This was a compelling performance as lyric as it was dramatic, an honest, plangent ribbon of sound and words tied between the failing will of his mother, sung well by Paoletta Marrocu, and Hoare's cynical Inquisitor (with Brian Galliford and Francisco Javier Borda as the thugs guarding him). David Holmes' simple but stark lighting finessed the evening.

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