Proms 2019: Peter Eötvös – Alhambra; Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Premières)

The last two premières at the Proms have both been concertos: Alhambra, the third violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, and Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul, a double-trumpet concerto by Swedish composer Tobias Broström. It’s been interesting to note how their overall approach to narrative is, at a fundamental level strikingly similar, while their respective modus operandi could hardly be more different.

As the name suggests, the inspiration for Eötvös’ Alhambra is the eponymous ninth century palace in Granada. By his own admission, Eötvös hadn’t been to visit the Alhambra before writing the piece (his first time in Granada was at the work’s world première earlier this month); the concerto is instead an imaginary walk around the palace complex and grounds. The nature of this walk, emphatically led by the violin throughout (with a scordatura mandolin as an occasional sidekick), is capricious. Its outlook is divided, inexorably drawn back and forth between impulses that tend to the reflective and the jaunty. The oscillating effect of this is demonstrated in the opening minutes: the violin’s opening solo, ostensibly searching, is suddenly forgotten in a flash of flamboyance; withdrawing inward, the music then opens out into a high register burst of lyricism, surrounded by chiming percussion – something that will recur several times during the piece – before descending into a rollicking sequence of pure merriment with the rest of the orchestra.

These opening few minutes serve as a paradigm for everything that follows. Not only in the work’s sharp veering between extremes of intro- and extroversion, but also more broadly in its lurching, halting sense of forward motion. This is not music concerned with building momentum or creating a clearly delineated longer-term arc: Eötvös is taking a rhapsodic, improvisational stroll through musical ideas that, while often totally contrasting, never conflict with one another. A sense of dialogue, of the soloist and the orchestra – or, more specifically, assorted individual members of it – engaged in a close, playful dialogue is very strong. Heavy accents that proliferate in the orchestral writing act both to punctuate the soloist’s material as well as to suggest a frisky kind of provocation, inviting the violin to react.

To an extent, therefore, what happens throughout Alhambra is less significant than the way it happens: a continual fluctuation through disjunct, divergent behaviours, some melodic, others a mess of ornamentation; up and down through the registers, often pausing in the stratosphere (embellished with chimes) to reflect before hurtling back to earth in order to dance; one minute full of energy and potential power, the next wan and colourless, seemingly poised to fizzle out. But that’s not to diminish the moment by moment interest in Eötvös’ music: a mix of mysterious, momentous and opulent, both the endless filigree itself and the beautiful way it’s orchestrated are both wondrous to behold.

At first listen, Tobias Broström’s Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul works in practically the opposite way. Contrast is not at all what makes the piece tick. In theory, Broström’s music is fuelled by considerations of alchemy, psychology and spirituality: the title refers to both the alchemical cooking of materials into a “uniform black matter” as well as (via Jung, via St John of the Cross) a means by which one enters into and confronts the shadows of one’s inner self. Again in theory, Broström divides up those considerations into three movements, titled ‘Shades and Echoes’, ‘No Man’s Land/Antagonism’ and ‘Equilibrium/Dystopia – Remembrance’.

i say “in theory” because, in practice, both the manifestation of that inspiration as well as the clarity of a three-movement form are to all intents and purposes non-existent. It’s always an interesting game to play with contemporary music, comparing and contrasting the way composers speak or write about their works with the music as actually heard and experienced. Not that it matters: this game doesn’t necessarily reveal anything meaningful about whether a composition is any good or not. Music hardly lives or dies on the strength of its composer’s explanations (if it did, very much music would be very dead indeed). In the case of Nigredo, what Broström has created is something akin to an extended dream sequence-like work. Driven by the two trumpets, who are essentially twin facets of a single ‘voice’, the music never significantly deviates away from a basic behaviour in which the soloists occupy a lyrical foreground, moving closely with the orchestra which follows and responds, always in a reduced capacity, imitative or supportive but always on a smaller scale.

As such, the variations and vagaries of its music are not primarily perceived as distinct episodes or discrete modes of behaviour but as the localised consequences of spontaneous ebb and flow integrated within an erratic but ultimately organic long, single form. There’s something almost Takemitsu-like about this: a situation in which anything can happen and sound exactly right – but precisely because the scope of its behaviour and language is carefully limited. And what may or may not be gaps between those purported movements are therefore heard as pauses in this large-scale, free-form fantasia, rather than shifts in the work’s musical gears or subtext. In likening it to a dream sequence, that’s also an acknowledgement of the hypnotic tension the piece exhibits: paradoxically relaxed yet poised, intensifying and hitting high points without ever becoming classically climactic, its energy released in controlled amounts while always suggesting the possibility of its fully unleashed potential.

Two very different compositional approaches: one a promenade of behavioural difference and diversity, the other a blissed-out equilibrium, floating ad libitum within its gracefully-defined limits. Yet beyond, or beneath, those differences Alhambra and Nigredo can be heard as doing much the same thing: opting out of a clear sense of direction in favour of a whimsical, unpredictable journey that goes where it likes, goes where it must.

The first UK performance of Peter Eötvös’ Alhambra was given last Wednesday by Isabelle Faust and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer; Tobias Broström’s Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul received its UK première last Thursday performed by Jeroen Berwaerts and Håkan Hardenberger with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Markus Stenz.


Peter Eötvös – Alhambra (UK Première)

Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Première)


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Peter Eötvös – Alhambra (Violin Concerto No. 3)

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Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières
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2 Responses to Proms 2019: Peter Eötvös – Alhambra; Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Premières)

  1. Mathias Richter

    The Broström concerto was a triple commission by BBC Radio 3, Malmö SO and Swedish Radio SO.
    The premiere took place in Malmö in March. It has already been broadcast by Swedish Radio P2, So is it legitimate to call this Proms performance a world premiere?
    Nevertheless, your highly imaginative review makes me want to listen again to the piece!

    • 5:4

      You’re right Mathias – i mis-read the information. Thanks for pointing out my mistake – i’ll correct the text right away!

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