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Seen and Heard Prom Review

 

PROM 15: Lyadov,  Baba-Yaga, The Enchanted Lake, Kikimora; Oliver Knussen,: Whitman Settings, Detlev Glanert,: Theatrum bestiarum (world premiere); Stravinsky, The Fairy's Kiss; Claire Booth (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Storgårds (conductor), 26 July 2005 (AO)

As soon as I read about this Prom, I knew it was going to be interesting because there are numerous devious and subtle connections between the works and composers.  It's a bit like a crossword puzzle; the thrill is in guessing the hints.  Lyadov worked in Russian theatre, and was succeeded by Stravinsky, in his first big break.  Knussen and Glanert both write works for theatre with the same feeling for magic and humour as inspired Lyadov and Stravinsky.  Knussen and Glanert moreover are both known for their whimsical works which appear to be about simple stories but are much deeper – as were the Russians in their own genre.  Knussen has conducted Glanert many times and would have conducted this Prom were it not for illness.  Knussen's famous “childrens operas” are to librettos by Maurice Sendak, whose drawings are on the cover of Knussen's recording of The Fairy's Kiss... and so the arcane puzzle evolves, layer on layer!

Lyadov might have been a great composer if, like a character in a fairytale, he had not enjoyed indolence more.  The little that remains of his work is almost magically beautiful, exquisitely crafted jewels that might receive more recognition if they were set as symphonies or whole operas.  Each may be a relatively short piece, but is perfect in itself.  Fortunately,  Storgårds and the orchestra treated them with the dignity and delicacy they deserve.  It was a magical start to the evening.  I had not really thought of Knussen's Whitman settings in the context of fairy tale, but on relistening to them recently, I was struck by the sense of wonder in Whitman's texts.  Whitman is not at all an easy poet to set, for his lines are long and his phrases tortuous.  Composers like Vaughan Williams countered their bulk by writing equally big settings, for big orchestra and chorus.  Knussen marshals his orchestra as if it were a chamber ensemble, and the songs have a touch of mystery.  Unfortunately they may remain a mystery to those who were at this Prom, for the Royal Albert Hall is not the kindest  place for a voice as delicate as Claire Booth's.

Detlev Glanert's Theatrum beastiarum was commissioned specially for the Proms by the BBC, and this was its world premiere.  The role of the BBC in commissioning new music is sadly underestimated.  The corporation is much, much more than merely a media provider.   The vision behind the Proms and the BBC was to encourage the arts and public awareness.  Over the decades it indeed shaped the way music has developed, and brought music to uncountable millions not only in this country but worldwide.  The whole area around the Albert Hall is witness to a great, idealistic vision, that Britain can and should be a beacon of culture for the world.  And long may that idealism last, even if first night audiences are thin on the ground.  Many BBC premieres have gone on to become well loved, and indeed Glanert's Third Symphony was well received at its Proms premiere in 1996.  I'm not sure about this piece, however, simply because it seems to have been tailor made for the Proms.  It deliberately makes the most of the glorious grand organ that dominates the venue.  Glanert brings it into the music like a coup de theatre in itself.  Not every venue has one.

Glanert's recent work has focussed on the darker recesses of human nature, and it might be tempting to see Theatrum bestiarum in this context.  But the music itself gives the game away.  It's just too irrepressibly vibrant and uplifting, more a heady circus than a freak show of horrors.  “Music is theatre”, says Glanert, “imaginative, not realistic”.  Indeed, strange figures seem to scuttle across the music, odd sounds burst forth from the oboes and strings, as if they were the tails of creatures flitting past so quickly you can't catch sight of them.  This is amazingly visual music, bursting with colour and brio.  It's great Proms stuff too because it uses oddities like the contrabassoon and five percussionists, no less.  There are passages of wistful “Nachtmusik” and a burlesque march to boot. It has a great vivacity and movement, a real party piece perfect for the occasion.     Henze would, I think, understand what Glanert is doing, because they both believe that good music is for ordinary people.  When the youthful Glanert first studied with Henze, the master asked him bluntly, “Why do you compose and for whom?”  It is a question that Glanert says he keeps thinking about and it keeps him sharp.  Royal Prince Albert himself, Sir Henry Wood, Lord Reith and many others would endorse that passionate belief that music has social value.

I admired the brilliant programme planning behind this Prom.   Astoundingly, the synchronicities grow and grow the deeper you get into the music.  Lyadov and Stravinsky were both taught by Rimsky-Korsakov, but Stravinsky was the hard working student who became a “prince” so to speak.  The Fairy's Kiss is Stravinsky's reworking of the story of the Ice Maiden, which he saw as an allegory of the life of Tchaikovsky.  Into the four brief acts, he incorporates ideas from Tchaikovsky's music and reshapes it in his own way.  It is both a tribute to the earlier composer and a reaffirmation of Stravinsky's own musical growth.   Glanert celebrated Henze's 60th birthday in 1986 by composing a piece illustrating in 60 bars the course of Henze's life until then.  It is an eventful life, a turbulent youth, early success and then scandal, Italy, Cuba... the very stuff of opera.  And Henze, in a strange kind of reversal of the master/student relationship with Glanert, went on to write L'Upupa, itself an imaginative, modern take on Mozart's Magic Flute.    The performance by Storgårds and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was exceptionally vivid and detailed.  The Tchaikovsky references were true Stravinsky, for they were played with a real feel for Stravinsky's idiom and sensibility.  It was remarkable.  I don't know if Storgårds composes, as Knussen does, but it was like listening to “layers” of composers listening to each other.  Quite magical.

 

Anne Ozorio

 

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