For a Land Without Music, as the Germans used to call us, we British don’t do badly when it comes to sending conductors overseas to run the orchestras of other countries. I suppose it resurrects, in cultural terms, our old colonial habits. And there’s always interest when the conductor brings his orchestra back to the Proms, to show it off. A ritual return, it’s like a young man bringing home his foreign bride to meet the family. And an example at the Albert Hall the other week came when Jonathan Nott brought over from Geneva his recently acquired Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
As brides go, the OSR is on the old side, celebrating its centenary right now; and 49 of those 100 years were led by Ernest Ansermet, a legendary figure who will always be remembered for the great recordings he made with the Suisse Romande in the 1950s and 60s.
Ansermet is long gone but his presence clings. And it was clinging at the Proms, throughout a programme that reflected his enthusiasms: music such as the ballet score Petrushka that he frequently conducted, being close to both Stravinsky and Diaghilev.
As his successor, Nott has stepped into enormous shoes. But everything about this concert indicated that he’s holding up, flying the flag for Brits abroad with style and confidence.
Doing the same is Edward Gardner, who brought his Bergen Philharmonic to the Proms with music that amounted to a Nordic theme park. Opening with Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture (because the story happens on the coast of Norway), it concluded with Sibelius’s bracing 2nd Symphony – done vividly but with too little breathing space, as though the players had to catch the last train home.
Between the two came a new violin concerto by Rolf Wallin, a Norwegian who composes across genres, reaching into jazz and rock – although in this case he produced a deadly serious concert score derived from fractal algorithms. Busy, fussy, charmless, it had interest but no enduring impact, though it suited the sharp, steely tone of soloist Alina Ibragimova – a violinist I find hard to love.
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