Prom 5: BBC Philharmonic/Mena – review

Royal Albert Hall, London

First performed in Berlin in 2009 and now given its UK premiere by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena, Kaija Saariaho's Laterna Magica takes its name and inspiration from Ingmar Bergman's autobiography.

Bergman's discovery of the magic lantern, an early form of projector that uses multiple drawings or photographs to create the illusion of movement when its handle is turned, triggered his first experiments with film. Saariaho, accordingly, rings changes on ideas of stasis and speed in a score that deploys constantly shifting tempi and rhythms beneath orchestral sonorities of considerable refinement.

Fragments of Bergman's text, whispered by the players, are added to the textures. Pervasive horn chords, meanwhile, refer specifically to the unforgettable seepage of red through Cries and Whispers, though the music does not replicate the film's gruelling tone. The BBC Philharmonic played it with great finesse for Mena, who was very much at home with its textural subtleties.

It formed the centrepiece, however, of a somewhat variable Prom. The opening and closing works were Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra and Sibelius's Seventh Symphony, respectively. Mena conducted both with an expansive nobility, which proved admirable in the Sibelius, but less so in the Strauss, where a couple of passages – the prayers of the religious, the scientific fugue – can, and did, hang fire a bit when taken slowly. The low point came, however, with Strauss's Four Last Songs, finely conducted by Mena and played with great authority, but alarmingly sung by Anne Schwanewilms. Underpowered throughout, her tone was threadbare, and there was no dynamic shading to speak of. The words came and went. In Beim Schlafengehen, she lost her way completely at one point before crooning one crucial phrase an octave down. Very, very worrying.

• If you're at any Prom this summer, tweet your thoughts about it to @guardianmusic using the hashtag #proms and we'll pull what you've got to say into one of our weekly roundups – or leave your comments below.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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