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PROM 27: Maxwell Davies, ‘Antarctic’ Symphony No.8 and Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, BBC Philharmonic, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies & Yan Pascal Tortelier, RAH, 4th August 2004 (AN)


"This symphony cannot be described literally in terms of any programme associated with my Antarctic experience – it is, rather, an abstract work, using transmuted sound-images distantly based on those experiences, which I hope will evoke in the concert hall listener responses related to mine in situ."


writes Sir Peter Maxwell Davies about his evocative single-movement composition that pays as much tribute to Britain’s polar achievements as to Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica of 1952. From an authentic viewpoint aboard the Antarctic-bound RRS James Clark Ross, Davies observed the icy landscape through musical eyes and the purity of his empiricism rings true throughout the score.


Eluding strict programmatic narrative, Antarctic nevertheless takes us along a journey that begins and ends with the destructive but necessary disintegration of ice – at the opening the physical breaking of it and, for a finale, ice melts away to reveal the rock beneath. In the course of the symphony, an alternating slow-fast pattern discerns about seven main climate changes that provide a logical unravelling where the anarchic post-tonal harmonies perplex.


Davies’ musical impression is stirring – chaotic and fragile at once. Two fundamental elements, light and the relativity of passing time, are captured with painstaking precision by translucent textures and consistently shifting speeds and dynamics. And yet for all the wealth on the pages, the BBC Philharmonic derived little more than an accurate and politely inoffensive run-through: accuracy thanks to Davies’ religiously strict baton, but why the bland performance?


The symptoms appeared in the Exposition, when a furiously contrasting Allegro failed to generate extreme conditions for the manifesting drama. None of the wonder and awe of the compositional inspiration could be felt. The string orchestra made a poor challenge to the towering brass and percussion sections, and even the violin and ‘cello solos were drowned out by less prominent sounds. In the penultimate slow and Allegro sections, many of the stark juxtapositions stopped short of spectacular climaxes – there lacked the crucial spark to ignite the frenzy.


Other parts were more successful: the eerie clarinet melody against a pizzicato cello backdrop; the "junkyard" denouement of the scherzo-like reworking of the first section, referencing earlier works in the process; and not least of all the white-tie that contributed a frosty sheen to the otherwise hot and sticky concert hall… albeit theatre props are no substitute for the drama.


Next to the Berlioz, however, Antarctica was a stroke of genius. Allow me to rest my case with a syllogism (and I bear full responsibility for the requisite premises): Premise No.1: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is, by virtue of its infectious tunes and theatrical gestures, the kind of piece that survives second-rate performances. Premise No.2: Tonight’s Proms performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was second-rate. Conclusion: Tonight’s Proms performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique survived…well, just about.


Yan Pascal Tortelier seems more wrapped up in his lavish arm movements than in the music at hand: Is he painting Berlioz’s opium-induced fairytale in the skies? Is he practising his tennis forehand and backhand spin? The possibilities are endless and speculation will get us nowhere… What can be used as hard evidence is that Dreams was completely charmless; the pace was heavy and the syncopation between brass and strings ineffectual. Passions introduced the lover’s idée fixe but the affectation was overdone and insincere. When the handsome ‘cello section picked up on the recurrent theme in a sequentially rising passage, their machismo paled in comparison with Tortelier’s persistent courtship of his grandiose hand gesticulations. Uncoordinated violins also fell victim to the conductor’s vanity and entries were too often inaccurate.


The Ball scene was overripe: vibrato abounded but made an unstable partnership with the floaty, undefined violin statements. Tempo would not have been an issue if the notes and temperament weren’t garbled in the process, thereby producing less music and more fluster. The interjecting episodes were tactless and the concluding acceleration left strings lagging behind woodwind!


Scene in the Country was, at first, controlled and idyllic. The off-stage cor anglais set a peaceful tone and the violins warmed it up with gentle highlights. Alas, a startlingly poor contribution from the clarinet heralded a renewed succession of disappointments. The idée fixe in the strings was barely audible and the transition to the March to the Scaffold was tedious. Fortunately, this movement was not – the strings broke away from their torpor and displayed tremendous dynamics and spirit.


Now the BBC Philharmonic was on a roll – Dream of a Sabbath Night started well, spearheaded by a devious cascading flute. The shrill E flat clarinet soon brought an end to this temporary bliss and with a final insult, exceedingly sharp tubas delivered the infamous Dies Irae plainchant. Not the best way to end a concert but, as my theory goes, tolerable.


Aline Nassif

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