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S & H Prom Review

PROM 13: Haydn, Bartók, Copland, John Adams; Hélène Grimaud (pf), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Southend Girl’s Choir, Southend Boy’s Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, John Adams (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 27th July 2003 (AR)


This Prom was one of the most imaginative and well thought out programmes, with all the works based around man’s mortality.

Adams brought the right degree of agitated nervousness and melancholic grace to the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony no.44 in E minor, 'Trauer', while the Menuetto was conducted and played with a sprightly, cool restraint. The core of the performance was the tranquil Adagio which was played with great elegance, with the string sounds giving the impression of a distant ghostly haze (an effect which was to return in Adams’ Transmigration of Souls which ended the concert). The final movement was conducted with attack and brio, with the strings assuming a weightier, sinewy toughness. Throughout the entire symphony, the reduced BBC Symphony Orchestra played with immaculate precision.

Hélène Grimaud’s crisp and subtle playing of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.3 (1945) avoided any trace of the egocentric antics of a star soloist by blending in with the tone and colours of the orchestra rather than competing with it. She constantly kept her eyes on the orchestra and was totally integrated, typified by her delicate interchanges between piano and woodwind in the first movement.

Grimaud’s playing of the Adagio was spare, stark and deeply sensitive, perfectly complemented by equally expressive string playing. The staccato exchanges between pianist and pointed woodwind deliciously evoked a forest full of bird song. For the concluding movement, the pianist took on a darker, percussive tone mirroring the intensity of the timpani, shrill woodwind and biting brass. Throughout, Grimaud’s finger work was agile, versatile and immaculate and she had total rapport with conductor and orchestra, resulting in a wholly admirable performance.

Aaron Copland’s evocative Quiet City (1939-40) was given flawless and sensitive solos from Celia Craig’s solemn cor anglais and William Houghton’s sombre trumpet, complimenting one another from opposing ends of the platform. Adams conducted with an assured line, making the music flow perfectly, with the sweeping BBC SO strings producing glowing, subdued colours.

Adams was recently appointed as the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Artist-in-Association and he brought to the Proms the European premiere of his Transmigration of Souls which he composed in response to the events of 9/11. Composing music (or writing poetry) about the traumatic effects of the destruction of the World Trade Centre can easily lead to the sensational or mawkishly sentimental, with all the rhetoric of ‘victimhood’, but Adams steered clear of this by composing a moving, minimalist memorial.

Adams said of his score before its New York premiere on 19th September, 2002: "My desire in writing this piece is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals in France or Italy. When you walk into Chârtres Cathedral, you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly."

The work opened with street sounds, sirens and the word ‘missing’ being repeated with the hushed chorus eventually floating through. There was something extraordinarily otherworldly in the way Adams transcribed for the three choruses the words spoken by parents of the victims in ‘Portraits of Grief’ (published in the New York Times), using phrases taken from missing persons’ posters and memorials posted in the vicinity of the ruins in Lower Manhattan. Adams’ genius lay in making these simple and direct words into the poetry of loss and grief, and the words were hauntingly delivered by the Southend Girl’s and Boy’s Choirs. Instead of poppy petals we were showered with names; electronic voices coming from high up in the dome, intoned the names of the missing, which had an overwhelming impact, greatly enhanced by the vast expanse of the Royal Albert Hall.

The orchestration was sparse, subtle, tight and economic with the composer expressing maximal musical sensations with minimal orchestral means. The brass writing had a particularly intense and razor edge to it, whilst the woodwind sounded wracked with pain and despair.

The most poignant phrases were the closing: ‘I see water and buildings’ and ‘I love you’. Such simple statements took on an eerie, uncanny sensation, providing a transcendental memorial to the souls of the dead haunting the hall. An extraordinary experience, of a memorable event, on an unforgettable evening.

Freudian Marc Cousins stated: "For it is in remembering the name of another that one moves from mourning to memorial." (Tate Magazine, Winter 1996). John Adams’ sensitive score moves us from mourning to memorial.

Alex Russell

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