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Seen and Heard Prom Review

PROM 61: Stravinsky, Boulez, Messiaen Stravinsky : Symphonies of Wind instruments (1920-1) Boulez :  e e cummings ist der Dichter Stravinsky : The dove descending breaks the air, Three sacred Slavonic choruses Messiaen : Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine

Nicloas Hodges (piano) Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot) BBC Singers, Stephen Betteridge (choir master) BBC Symphony Orchestra David Robertson (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, 30th August 2005 (AO)


Stravinsky titled his short piece not as 'symphony,' but 'symphonies' in the archaic, European meaning – a collection of ideas that 'sympathise”' and stream together: a fitting start to a Prom exploring ways of writing for choir and instruments.   This evening, we were treated to the original version of Stravinsky's piece, before he revised it a quarter century later.  The earlier version is more rooted in Russian sounding tradition : it feels more 'reverent', and so more fiiting to its origin as a memorial to Debussy who had recently died befor it was written.  The use of wind instruments alone gives the work a curiously “vocal” quality, for these instruments may resemble voices more than others.  This was an extremely deft performance, in which the players were exquisitely sensitive to one another with each remaining and individual but together pursuing the same goal.  The performnace was very beautiful and solemn, evoking ancient Orthodox liturgy while tempering it with modernism.  Pierre Boulez has often championed the work, so it was particularly fitting that it should be followed by the only Boulez composition in this Prom series – a surprising ommission given that this year is Boulez's 80th birthday and given too that he has conducted so often at the Proms.

Indeed,  e e cummings is der Dichter has been played three times at the Proms, the last time being 1977 when conducted by the composer himself.  Though seldom heard, it is an important part of Boulez's output since in this work he experiments with voice and instruments in a highly unusual way.  The poet, e e cummings, used the visual effect of reading poetry as an integral part of his work.  Shape, metre, scansion, punctuation, were all used only in the service of the poem itself, not as means in themselves.  It is poetry that comes as close to abstract art as possible – even meaning and communication are equivocal.  Boulez treats the vocal part as a multi faceted instrument with infinite capacity for gradations of colour.  The BBC Symphony choir have the ability to carry off this finely modulated shading,  keeping the different tones they sing clearly projected.  The soprano soloist, Margeret Feaviour, was stunning.  Her part soared forcefully out of the music, propelling it along.  She was singing text reduced to its  barest minimum, yet she made them sound glorious and full of purpose.  Like the poet, Boulez uses the “whole palette” so to speak – silences and sudden bursts of flamboyant pizzicato on the basses. This is music that rethinks form.  The poet wrote:




and Boulez responded in kind. He is truly “here, inven/ting air” as the poet puts it.

The brilliant minds that programme Proms concerts were at work here once again.  Boulez setting of cummings' poem which starts with minimalist, but significant reference to birds, was followed by Stravinsky's setting of T S Eliot's The dove descending breaks the air from Little Gidding.  Although Stravinsky's piece is later than Boulez's and is very lovely indeed, it loses impact by following it rather than preceeding.

The programmer scored particulalry well however by pairing Stravinsky's Three sacred Slavonic choruses with Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine.  These also reinforced the Boulez connection, making the evening in its own way a tribute to him.

Stravinsky's choruses are a cappella – an interesting juxtaposition, too, with the non vocal Symphonies for wind instruments.  The chorus is a conventional SATB, and they handled Stravinsky's texts with aplomb, highlighting the inner melodic logic.  They demonstrated that Stravinsky could find something new and original from the simplest, purest materials.

In a similar fashion, Messiaen takes the basic form of liturgy and turns it into something completely new and compelling.  Here, the chorus part fills a swirling, luxuriant background making the extremely spare piano part stand out all the more starkly. Nicolas Hodges is one if the great new-music pianists and pulled from the single, stabbing notes a strong sense of texture – as if his part were the skeleton holding the larger ensemble together.  From this perspective too, the dialogue between piano and ondes martenot takes added signifigance.  Cynthia Millar's role starts out barely obvious, and is strengthened by the female chorus.   Gradually, though the ondes takes prominence, until at the end of all three parts it comes into its full glory, when Millar can indulge in the spooky, quirky potential of the instrument.  Margaret Yeaviour again had a chance to shine.  Interestingly, it's a female choir, and the ondes martenot, associated so strongly with Yvonne Loriod, is sometimes thought of as a “female” instrument.  Certainly in these pieces there is an undercurrent of “male” and female” elements – the terse, angular piano part alternating with the more nebulous ondes martenot, literally a “conversation intérieure”. 

The lively middle movement seems to owe a lot to Japanese music.  Messiaen repeats a cadence of notes which sounds decidedly oriental, and even uses an expansive finale reminiscent of “rising sun” music often used in far-eastern films, complete with a large Chinese gong.  Perhaps it's his way of evoking something beyond mainstream experience, and glorious.  Children's street games and chants are evoked in the third part of the triptych, affirming the title Dieu présent en toutes choses. 

This was a late night Prom, but very well attended and deservedly so.  David Robertson is an unusually bouncy conductor who leaps across the stage with such vigour you almost wonder what he eats for breakfast!  But the results prove him right – the BBC Symphony's star players are some of the best, and the chorus, of course, is in a class of its own.  The combination of this conductor and these performers augurs very well indeed for future performances if the sparks and vigour they produced this evening were anything to go by. 


Anne Ozorio


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