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.
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.