As the vast majority of Proms
audiences tend to veer towards conservative programmes, it was hardly
surprising (though very disappointing) that the Royal Albert Hall was
a barely one third full for this concert of modern works. It remains
a mystery why the public tend to be put off by the ‘new’, since all
music was ‘new’ once: even Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring entered
into the classical canon soon after its riotous Paris premiere.
Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony
Orchestra opened their programme with Two dances for ‘Les Sylphides’
(1909) by Frederic Chopin, orchestrated by Stravinsky (its first performance
at the Proms). Nocturne in A flat major, Op. 32 No.2 came across
as pure pastiche of Tchaikovsky ballet music and nothing much else:
here Stravinsky had not yet developed his own, distinctive musical voice.
Whilst Knussen coaxed the BBC SO to play in a very gentle, delicate
manner, all this sensitivity was sabotaged by continuous loud coughing
from the Gods which ruined the entire performance.
The Waltz in E flat major,
Op. 18, ‘Grande valse brillante’ was strikingly reminiscent of Berlioz/Weber
‘Invitation to the Dance’ and here Knussen conducted with an
agile lilt and got some spicy woodwind playing that really danced along.
Having said that there was something rather boring about this music
and it seemed difficult to grasp why the conductor chose to conduct
these early, immature works in the first place.
Ninety-five this December, a youthful
looking Elliott Carter sat in the front stalls listening intently to
the European premiere of his Boston Concerto (2002). The composer
said of his score in the programme notes: "The marvellous Boston
Symphony was very important to me in the mid 1920s and 1930s as a Harvard
student. At that time I went every Saturday and stood on the steps of
Symphony Hall for a ‘rush seat’ in the balcony …I am so grateful for
those years and I have, I hope, written a ‘thank you’ piece – Boston
Concerto. It throws a spotlight on each of the remarkable sections of
the orchestra, surrounding them with short orchestral pizzicato sections
for the entire group, not unlike the plan for a concerto grosso…"
Carter’s restrained and refined
work is not in the manner of Bartok’s virtuoso Concerto for Orchestra,
but a sparse and skeletal structure composed of splinters of stabbing
sounds coming from different sections of the orchestra in turn, creating
differing levels of sound sensation. While the score is composed of
multi-faceted fragments, the composer stitches them together as a unified
whole. Carter makes us hear the orchestra from the inside out, allowing
us into its depths by treating his musical quilt with fragile chamber-like
intricacy; the orchestral textures always had a delicate translucency.
The closing passages were deeply moving, with the BBC SO strings taking
on a sombre cutting edge. Carter has not composed a flashy orchestral
show-piece but an exercise in the economy of composition which brings
out the subtle nuances, colours and textures of the symphony orchestra.
Carter stated: "I hope in this work I have found a way of repaying
the debt I owe to the Boston Symphony…" Indeed, he has certainly
done this in this celebration of a great orchestra. The sparse audience
seemed genuinely enthusiastic towards this complex and illuminating
score, and gave the composer an ovation when Knussen invited him to
take a bow on the platform
This was the London Premiere of
Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto (2001-2), which was originally
composed for the evening’s soloist, Pinchas Zuckerman. Knussen wrote
of this work: "At times the violinist resembles a tightrope
walker progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire strung across
the span that separates the opening and closing sounds of the piece."
Indeed, the fifteen minute, three-movement, tightly knit structure
begins and ends with a tubular-bell and a ‘stratospheric’ violin note.
The opening and closing close
of the concerto (signified by the tubular bell death knell) gave the
illusion of the music falling back on itself and imploding rather than
moving in a linear progression: we had ended up where we begun - and
time itself seemed negated; an uncanny experience. Thus, writing about
this concerto from the beginning to its end is impossible because it
has no beginning or end but an eternal movement of disseminated fragments
(reminiscent of Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence). Knussen’s extraordinary
contra-concerto goes against the grain of what constitutes a concerto
in the strict classical sense of that term. There is no soloist per
se as Zuckerman demonstrated, constantly blending his playing with
the orchestra and dissolving his sparse sounds into a quiet stroke of
a cymbal or gong. Knussen’s subtle scoring was tailor-made for Zuckerman’s
subdued and sensitive playing: the intense, economic nature of the orchestral
writing complemented the violinist’s extremely taut, razor edged sharpness
of tone which indeed resembled "a tightrope walker progressing
along a (decidedly unstable) high wire."
The concluding work, Igor Stravinsky’s
Agon – ballet for twelve dancers (1952-7) was somewhat of an anticlimax
after the white- hot intensity of Knussen’s radical work. Like Stravinsky’s
Two dances for Les Syphides (1909) heard in part one, Agon
came across as sterile, clinical and contrived: formula music analogous
to painting by numbers. Like late Picasso, late Stravinsky substitutes
radical invention for virtuoso technique. While Knussen’s conducting
was measured and economic the performance lacked colour and character,
with the BBC SO sounding rather detached and disinterested. Tellingly,
the audience also seemed rather bored with this last Stravinsky offering.
This concert was dedicated to
the memory of Music Renaissance Woman, Sue Knussen (20 May 1949 – 23