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Selected Review


Festival

Proms 2019

Proms 2019

Say what one might, the BBC Proms continues to offer the widest and most inclusive range of any comparable music festival – and, though quantity might on occasion pre-empt quality, there was no lack of worthwhile concerts for those who were attending in a critical capacity.

Prom 7 (Tuesday 23 July) was one such, enabling its audience to hear the BBC Philharmonic with chief conductor-designate Omer Meir Wellber. Interest in the first half centred on a rare revival of the First Symphony by German-born Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim. Completed in 1940, this is a statement of intent whose ambition is not fully realized – at least in the over-bearing rhetoric of its outer movements; the central 'Psalm' achieves the equilibrium between formal cohesion and expressive potency which is a defining feature of this work’s successor. Beforehand, Yeol Eum Son was the fluent if rather anonymous soloist in Mozart's Fifteenth Piano Concerto – the second and most ingratiating of his 1784 six-some, and a piece which can still embody considerably greater range and variety of emotion that was evident tonight.

After the interval, Meir Wellber opted for the (outsize) original 1909 version of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces - probably occasioned by its having been first played at these concerts three years later as, aside from bringing out a tangible poignancy in 'The Past', there was little probing or personal about his interpretation; not least in 'The Obligato Recitative' as made for an all too earthbound conclusion. More insight was evident in Schumann's Fourth Symphony, in the 1851 revision that has in recent years lost ground to the original from a decade before. Howsoever one assesses its orchestration, formal continuity – notably those transitions into the opening allegro, then from the scherzo into the finale – is demonstrably superior in this later version and the conductor's astute handling of such passages suggested he felt likewise.

Prom 33 (Sunday 11 August) found Semyon Bychkov renewing his productive association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Bychkov has long been an advocate of Detlev Glanert, whose Weites Land received its UK premiere. As its 'Musik mit Brahms’ subtitle suggests, this is both homage to and questioning of the German master's aesthetic - its unbroken span unfolding as a process of continuous variation that could have been extended beyond its 12 minutes. The BBCSO fully conveyed its textural and allusive qualities, then provided lucid accompaniment for the soprano Christina Gansch in Glanert's orchestration of Einsamkeit – more a cantata then song in its formal dimensions, here given a suitably imaginative while understated transformation as brought its emotional depths even more tangibly into focus.

After the interval, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – its 1905 hearing at these concerts also the UK premiere of a work then barely five years old. Odd to think of music once greeted with dismay now being received with almost disinterested warmth, though that may have been a consequence of Bychkov's reading – unfailingly lucid and coherent, if missing out on some of the danger as lurks behind the first movement's blithe ingratiation, or acute malevolence permeating the scherzo's deadpan irony. Best was a slow movement whose variation format unfolded methodically prior to a radiant culmination; after which, Gansch brought winsome poise to the finale which yet failed to uncover those more ambivalent motions inferred by its text. Little wonder, then, tonight’s audience sounded nonplussed by the matter-of-fact close.

Prom 41 (Saturday 17 August) brought the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski in a Russian concert enticing and unusual. A showcase, too, for this season's Henry Wood Novelties - a 1900 outing for Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto likely the first complete account of a piece its composer overhauled 17 years later. Alexander Ghindin has made a speciality of the 1891 original, his thoughtfully attentive playing making a virtue of reliance on earlier models - whether in the emotional short-windedness of its first movement, Griegian pathos of its Andante or the unabashed bravado of its finale. Preceding it was a suite drawn from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera-ballet Mlada, three pleasantly nondescript dances bookended by a wistful 'Introduction' and the ear-catching 'Procession of the Nobles'.

It was the second half that nevertheless left a greater impression. Lyadov's various orchestral miniatures work best in groups – here the devilish journey of Baba-Yaga was complemented by the more nuanced evocation of Kikimora, but it was a comparatively rare revival of From the Apocalypse that really hit home. The composer may have laboured several years on these 10 minutes, but Revelation has rarely been so powerfully evoked as by this vision of ultimate catastrophe. Its delectable Scherzo aside, Glazunov's Fifth Symphony undeniably epitomises the well-made archetype synonymous with its composer, but Jurowski had its best interests at heart – whether in the forward impetus of its opening movement, the ruminative pathos of its Andante, then a finale whose apotheosis resounded its affirmation without hint of bombast.

Prom 42 (Sunday 18 August) saw a welcome visit by the Ulster Orchestra with its out-going music director Rafael Payare, and a well-balanced programme which included works by two female composers. Clara Schumann’s teenage Piano Concerto responded well to the deftness and understatement of Mariam Batsashvili, who negotiated the formal gaucheness of its first movement as ably as the 'song without words' simplicity of its successor, before projecting the finale with audible panache. A telling foil to Fairy-tale Poem, the earliest acknowledged orchestral work by Sofia Gubaidulina and a notable instance of how music conceived as the soundtrack for a film could be remodelled into this sequence of evocative vignettes the more evocative for their brevity - a case of 'less being more' this composer has not always pursued.

Framing these pieces in either half were two First Symphonies that function ideally in such a context. That by Beethoven is frequently taken to task for its relative conservatism compared to his chamber and piano works in this period, but the introductions of both outer movements lack for nothing in either tonal or emotional provocation - as Payare adeptly underlined here. Yet it was his distinctive take on that by Shostakovich which proved the more memorable – its always startling first movement imbued with a pathos intensified in the chant-like trio of its scherzo, before finding its ultimate outlet in the plangent depths of its Adagio. Perhaps the finale lacked a degree of cohesion, though its extremes of dynamism and desolation were as palpably conveyed as the peroration which represents this teenage composer's peerless QED.

Prom 52 (Wednesday 28 August) brought the Britten Sinfonia under the direction of Ryan Wigglesworth, active here in three of his four attributes (teacher excepted!). As pianist, he partnered Marc-Andre Hamelin for a lively while somewhat charmless reading of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos – at its most perceptive in the affectionately wry interplay of its finale. Tchaikovsky revered Mozart above all other composers, his Mozartiana - aka Fourth Orchestral Suite - exuding (mostly) non-indulgent affection in every bar. This past century has not been sympathetic to such arrangements, but Wigglesworth infused these four pieces with refreshing incisiveness – not least the closing 'Theme and Variations' after Gluck, with its discreet yet unerring instrumentation that Stravinsky was to find more than instructive.

Wigglesworth the composer came into focus after the interval with the first performance of his Piano Concerto. Playing a little over 20 minutes, its four movements unfold in pairs – a brief yet atmospheric 'Arioso' heading into a Scherzo and Trio' intriguing in its inscrutability; after which, the suitably Bartókian 'Notturno' makes ethereal play with its Polish folk-tune, before the closing 'Gigue' ups the emotional ante with its energetic dialogue between soloist and ensemble with the former left musing at the end. Hamelin did justice to the exacting and idiomatic piano part; Wigglesworth equally assured in his direction for an incisive if detached performance of the 'Divertimento' from Stravinsky's ballet The Fairy's Kiss, whose ingenious reworking of lesser-known Tchaikovsky might have benefitted from a little more affection.

Finally, to Prom 53 (Thursday 29 August) and a programme of English music synonymous with its conductor Andrew Davis. If Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, eloquently played by the BBCSO with the 'invisible' ensemble a halo of resonance at stage-rear, was the ostensible draw for a commendably full Royal Albert Hall, punters were hopefully as impressed by Hugh Wood's Scenes from Comus (premiered here 54 years ago). Less a cantata than extended scena on passages from Milton's poem, its finely sustained vocal lines were vividly rendered by soprano Stacey Tappan and tenor Anthony Gregory, but it was the orchestral episodes – by turns sensuous and orgiastic – as underlined this music's potency. How good that the composer, now in his late 80s, was present for this gripping performance.

No less impressive was the account of Elgar's The Music Makers after the interval. Among its composer’s most personal and perplexing pieces, this setting of Arthur O'Shaughnessy’s ode continues to fascinate as to its 'message' which, given the sombre emotional undertow, seems inescapably fatalistic. Not content with alluding to earlier of his works, Elgar integrates them into a musical fabric as intricately wrought as any of his choral pieces – a tough assignment that the BBC Symphony Chorus met with demonstrable conviction. Little more than a decade after his Enigma Variations and Elgar seems intent on invoking the 'omega' of his creativity, yet the journey had proved a rewarding and necessary one – as his music makes plain and as this reading, Sarah Connolly taking the mezzo part with thrilling resolve, amply confirmed.

Just a handful, then, of this season's Proms and, whatever credence might be attached to the process of cultural 'dumbing down' or programming other than on intrinsic merit, the purpose of these concerts is still to educate, enlighten and entertain – if not necessarily in that order.

Richard Whitehouse

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