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PROMS 2002

Proms Chamber Music 3: Falla, Poulenc, Phibbs, Piazzolla, Lecture Theatre, V & A Museum, Monday 5th August 2002. Falla – Concerto for harpsichord and five instruments; Poulenc – Sextet for Piano and Wind; Joseph Phibbs – La noche arrolladora; Piazzolla – Tango Seis; English Chamber Orchestra Ensemble (CN)


The theme of this concert was one of ‘looking to the past’, an exploration of musical modernization in the 20th Century. Pieces featured approached this in different ways – instrumentation, style, or form – yet, essentially, all tried to attain the same thing: a familiar novelty.

The first piece was responsible for a renaissance of sorts in writing for period instruments. Falla’s Concerto for harpsichord and five instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello) is a noble attempt at reworking the use of the harpsichord on a contemporary level and as a showcase for potential, it has been praised as a " brilliant reinvention….a striking example of the adaptation of a traditional form and technique for modern purposes". Certainly there was freshness in this instrumental collaboration yet there was little innovation in the harpsichord’s part, which was heavily steeped in baroque idioms, and only minor interplay with the other instruments.

Musically it is laboured; the first and third movements contain good but undeveloped ideas and are structurally disjointed whilst the Lento sounds vaguely reminiscent of the ‘Promenades’ from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, but in dirge form. There are instances of the fire and vitality common in his other works yet they are few and far between. It is not easy listening, even on the most attentive ear.

By contrast, Joseph Phibbs’ ‘La noche arrollodora’ (translated: ‘The Sweeping Night’), his third BBC commission which here received its World Premiere, takes on the potential of the harpsichord with imagination and spirit. Written for the same instrumentation as the Falla and inspired by the poetry of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. it is a fantastic piece, strongest in – and perhaps most memorable for - the variety of timbres produced in the ensemble, especially between the wind and harpsichord. A sense of freedom from the baroque period pervaded the piece whilst the evocation of the fantastical title is seductive.

The Sextet of Poulenc is quite different to either of these pieces. It is not concerned with modernization, rather homage, and it was written in reference to the wind chamber music of Mozart. It is open ground in many ways for the wit and humour distinctive in Poulenc’s writing of the time and the performance by the ECO Ensemble took every opportunity to emphasise that. Both the individual and ensemble playing was technically perfect and elegant.

Last came the ‘Tango Seis’ by Piazzolla. Originally ridiculed for his modernization of the traditional tango music of Argentina (Tango Nuevo) Piazzolla’s work is now seen as a fundamental turning point in the history of the genre. The work – essentially a violin solo – was brilliantly played by Stephanie Gonley, whose sultry tone was entirely suited to the work.

Christa Norton


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