Bartók’s one-act ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1918) was banned after its premiere in 1926 for the ‘indecency’ and immorality of its narrative, portraying the tale of a mandarin falling for a prostitute who lures and traps him to be tortured and brutally murdered by three thugs. Anyone familiar with Bartók’s intensely dramatic and horrifying opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) would expect no less, and the disruptive and highly dissonant ballet score explicitly illustrates the characters’ anxiety and tensions.
The orchestra were energetic through 12 non-stop sections of hard-edged music under Salonen who waved his baton as if painting a bloody landscape. The performance moved from disturbing quietness, to pulsating melodrama from the percussion (particularly the pure force of the timpani), and trombones representing the strange figure of the Mandarin.
The other main performance teleported the Royal Albert Hall to a blazing red Soviet Russia, with a large drawing of the never-completed Palace of the Soviet hanging over the stage. Prommers vigorously waved red flags, the Philharmonia Voices were dressed in red t-shirts with images of Stalin and Lenin’s faces, and Soviet uniforms provocatively pointed guns at the audience.
Shostakovich’s incomplete opera Orango (1932) is an unusual piece of theatre music that was first performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2011 by tonight’s conductor Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Shostakovich was asked to write the music as part of the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution and envisioned it as a satirical opera of the life of Orango, an anti-Soviet French journalist who is experimented on and becomes half ape, half human and is sold off to a circus. This was a particularly special performance as it was directed by Irina Brown, the original director of the European premiere in 2013, and Gerard McBurney who was requested by the composer’s widow to create a performing orchestration.
With a witty cast from Mariinsky Theatre performing the opera in period costume, jumping out from different entry points, the audience were excited and intrigued to hear the triumphant music. Salonen and the orchestra were extraordinary and relentless in bringing out the colours and various textures of this dynamic prologue. Credit is due to dancer Rosie Kay as Natya, baritone Ivan Novoselov who sung poor Orango and Natalia Pavlova as Suzanna for her act as the damsel in distress.
Mozart’s Concerto No.24 in C Minor performed by international soloist David Fray seemed a little like a filler piece that stood out between the Bartók and Shostakovich works. Far from dramatic and earth shaking, the piece evokes the ambiguous, melancholic emotions felt by Mozart at the time – the last years in Vienna before his death – much like his other piano concerto written in D minor that was performed on the First Night of the Proms.
Fray hugged himself and swayed to the first bars performed by the orchestra before crouching over the piano and punching out the notes. It took towards the end of the first ‘Allegro’ movement before he began to warm up and for his lyricism to shine. The orchestra’s oboes, clarinets and strings seemed safe and much quieter in their performance, and, as a fan of Mozart, I was rather disappointed that the music didn’t lift off.