It’s hard to imagine Richard Strauss’ 1896 tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra as existing before Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey, but what a treat to hear all nine movements, not just that (now) iconic opening, in the appropriately vast Royal Albert Hall, and with its mighty pipe organ too. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave us a fine rendition, led by their chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard.
From the imperceptibly low unison bass rumble of the opening, to the pull-out-all-the-stops blasts, the Royal Albert Hall’s mighty pipe organ (Richard Hills) really was the star. In the second movement, the organ doubles a reduced string ensemble, which met with perfect acoustics to create a mind-blowing sonic experience.
Schumann’s 1845 Piano Concerto in A minor opened the second half. Guest soloist Alexander Melnikov’s touch is magically light, gently twinkling in the first movement, and seemingly effortless even from the technical demands of the fast-moving second movement. Following enormous applause, Melnikov obliged with a softer, sadder encore of Schumann’s Traumerei.
Then, something rather peculiar happened: the auditorium started to empty out quite significantly. No doubt this was to avoid staying for the dissonant, percussive expressionism of Sir James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a 1990 Proms premiere. But what a performance. Unbearably powerful beds of strings swell in and out of passable consonance, with unexpected bursts of violent scratching and stabbing, along with traumatic whacks of percussion. Almost completely different to the two pieces that preceded; nevertheless topping the bill in terms of sheer emotional power, which the whole ensemble were able to convey.
1,350 £6 Promming tickets are available on the day for every performance.