Throughout his long career as a composer, Louis Andriessen has kicked against some of the musical establishment’s most cherished institutions. So in the year of his 80th birthday, it’s a bit of a surprise to find him producing such an apparently conventional new work as an orchestral song cycle. But this being Andriessen, The Only One – five settings of texts by the Flemish poet Delphine Lecompte in English translation – isn’t quite a standard song cycle. For one thing, the orchestra includes the saxophones and electric guitars that regularly give an acid edge to Andriessen’s textures. For another, the cycle was composed for Nora Fischer, whose singing blurs any distinction between the worlds of classical music, jazz and rock.
Fischer introduced Andriessen’s songs in Los Angeles in May, and brought them to the Proms with Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. She sings them with microphone in hand, and with the vocal lines mostly lying low in her voice, the effect is rather like a set of cabaret numbers. There was an element of theatre, too, whether part of Andriessen’s conception or Fischer’s own idea, as she wandered through the orchestra during the two interludes that punctuate the songs, changing her outfits and fiddling with her hair. That added to the sense of these being intimate asides rather than grand musical statements, though the imagery of Lecompte’s poems makes them naggingly disquieting.
Oramo had begun with Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain, not in the composer’s original orchestration but in Rimsky-Korsakov’s posthumously manicured arrangement; he also included Judith Weir’s Forest, her take on 19th-century German Romanticism. The concert ended with Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, a work that has already been heard at the 2019 Proms, when Thomas Dausgaard conducted the original four-movement version of the score. But this was the standard three-part scheme, with its wondrous transformation of the first movement into an ever-accelerating scherzo; Oramo engineered that with the same magisterial certainty with which he steered the finale to its glorious close.