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Seen and Heard Prom Review


Prom 18: Martinu, Mozart, Mahler, Janacek; Paul Lewis (pf), Petra Lang (mez sop), BBC SO, Andrew Davis (conductor); RAH, 29th July, 2004 (AR)


This reunion of Sir Andrew Davis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra offered us an imaginatively balanced and beautifully played programme. Not only is Davis a fine conductor of Mozart and Mahler but he shows a great instinct and passion for Czech music: his readings of the Martinu and Janacek works were exemplary.


Davis brought out the translucent textures and subterranean sensations of Martinu’s The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Martinu’s luminous music has all the fragility and evanescence of Piero’s images and the BBC SO played the piece with sensitivity and poetry. The opening strings had a floating, tremulous eeriness soaring upwards with accompanying shards of percussion and brass bursting with light and the woodwind casting spooky shadows. Timpanist John Chimes produced playing that was crisp and alert.


In the Adagio the spiky clarinets were really haunting as were the woodwind in the opening of the Pocco allegro. Here we could hear traces of Martinu’s Sixth Symphony, pulsating with threatening military rhythms, evoking a delicate darkness. I have always thought this to be one of the most beautifully haunting pieces of music and Davis conjured up the appropriate sensation of this exquisite, evocative sound world.


Paul Lewis gave us a refreshingly direct account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488. Lewis held the audience spell-bound with his concentrated and sparse playing, especially in the Adagio where his subdued tone produced an aura of mourning and melancholia. Davis and the BBC SO accompanied Lewis with an appropriate intimacy and aplomb.


Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang - substituting for an indisposed Alice Coote - had the ideal tone for Mahler’s mournfully dark Kindertotenlieder but her problem a certain lack of projection: she did not seemingly know how to ‘work the room’, with her voice often sounding barely audible. She gave the sensation of singing inwardly and to no one, as if the hall was empty. In contrast, some very stirring clarinet playing had both powerful projection as well as intimate poignancy. Orchestrally, the closing ‘stormy weather’ passages were tamed nature with Davis holding back his forces from sounding truly threatening.


Davis gave a taut reading of Janacek’s Taras Bulba securing highly expressive playing from his forces. The major flaw, in this otherwise superlative performance, was the playing of the timpani line of the repeated separated thuds concluding the Prophesy and Death of Taras Bulba. Here they were played too fast, losing the sense of menacing tension. John Chimes opted to use two sticks, which may have been the reason why this happened; usually, it is played with one stick and the thuds are more separated. This was further let down by a fudged re-entry of the brass who were out of tune. However in the concluding passages, Chimes’ playing was exemplary and exhilarating, accompanied by a fully recovered and glowing brass, tubular bells and the plangent organ.


Alex Russell


Further Listening


Martinu: The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca (World Premier 1956); Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Raefel Kubelik: Live: Orfeo 521 99


Janacek: Taras Bulba, Sinfonietta, etc; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Mackerras, Decca: CD: 448552


Mahler: Kindertotenlieder, Kathleen Ferrier, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Walter; Mahler Fourth Symphony, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Desi Halban, Bruno Walter, Naxos: 8.110876

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