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PROMS 2002

PROM 5: Elgar, Sawyer, Ravel, Stravinsky, Frederica von Stade (mezzo), Rolf Hind (pno), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, Royal Albert Hall, 23rd July 2002 (MB)

Thanks to BBC Radio 3 hospitality this Prom proved less of a chore than it might have been. Even David Sawyer’s slight, in every sense of the word, Piano Concerto seemed better than it was through the tint of a full wine glass.

The Piano Concerto, a BBC commission, and receiving its world premiere, is brief – no more than 12 minutes. Sawyer’s own notes, published in the Prom’s programme, are worth reprinting in full: ‘My Piano Concerto is made up of two movements, fast/slow, played without a break. In the first movement the piano hardly ever plays with the orchestra, and in the second movement it hardly ever plays on its own’. Such succinct phrasing belies the very long twelve minutes the work takes: it is devoid of thematic material, emotionless and prosaic. The orchestration is unbelievably sparse – no tuttis here – and yet the orchestra is a large one. If it reminds of Kagel and Ligeti it also focuses heavily on a quite idiomatic jazz language, notably in the first half, and it is much less hectic than Sawyer’s note lackingly implies. Much of the brass playing is muted, and this works well with the spikiness of the piano part which concentrates on single notes rather than clusters. Rolf Hind, as always, is a responsive advocate of new music but how I wished he had been given something more challenging than this work.

The BBC SO were slightly more committed in their performance of Elgar’s Alassio. Slatkin made much more of this work’s Straussian overtones and he was rewarded with some opulent string tone from the orchestra and noble brass playing. Yet, somehow, the balance between this works youthfulness and its arching Romanticism wasn’t entirely right. In part this was due to Slatkin’s slow tempi which pushed the work some way beyond twenty minutes; this meant the performance often lost its sense of structure. Sravinsky’s Firebird, in a quasi-Slatkin arrangement of the 1919 and full ballet versions, also had moments when the attention waned, but these were less frequent in a performance which brought much colour and beauty of phrasing (notably from the woodwind) to a work that never ceases to amaze. Most impressive was a startlingly violent ‘Infernal Dance’ which showed this orchestra’s often stunning articulation at its best: the precision and relentless stabbing of the opening chords was chilling. Some conductors may make the moment more fiery, but few give it the savagery which Slatkin unleashed on us. What then followed, a breathless, incredibly beautiful ‘Lullaby’ floated over a silenced audience like an ambient mist. A moment as magical as the ballet itself.

Frederica von Stade, making her Proms debut (belatedly because of last year’s events in New York which prevented it happening then) made a ravishing soloist in Ravel’s Shéhérazade. The exotic ardour of these songs was beautifully captured by this still rich mezzo voice, and yet I found her French diction often unsatisfactory. Many phrases were carelessly elided into each other, and at other times, such as in L’Indifférent, a multiplicity of consonants were added to simple, dual-syllabic words (‘De ton beau visage de duvet ombragé’ particularly galled). Nevertheless, she clearly understands the meaning behind the words and this was an evocative performance.

Marc Bridle


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