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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

 


 

Prom 35: Harvey, Mozart, Schumann: Stephen Kovacevich (piano) / BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (conductor). Royal Albert Hall. 09.08.2006 (ED)

 

Jonathan Harvey …towards a pure land (London premiere)

Mozart Piano Concerto No.25 in C major, K503

Schumann Symphony No. 3 in E flat major ('Rhenish')




It seems my luck of late to have attended Proms that were rather mixed bags either in terms of programming or execution, and this one was no different.

 

Jonathan Harvey’s … towards a pure land, the first of three commissions for the BBC SSO and Ilan Volkov, is an abstract construction of some seventeen minutes duration.

The composer’s own programme note for … towards a pure land proved of too little help in meaningfully outlining the ideas behind the score and betrayed the workings of a confused mind: “The centre itself is not solid, rather it is an emptiness, an empty presence. There is sound but only insubstantial pitch. In the surrounding music, the tempos are often fluid, the ideas are fleeting: things arise, then cease, in an unending flow. To grasp them and fix them would be to distort them falsely. A Pure Land is a state of mind beyond suffering, where there is no grasping […] The environment is completely pure, clean, and very beautiful […] gardens filled with heavenly flowers, bathing pools and exquisite jewels covering the ground which make it completely pure and smooth.”

 

Given current world events with yet another serious crisis unfolding daily, the timing could hardly be more suited for a work that reflected upon present human direction and projected some aspiration to a state beyond trouble and suffering. But surely Harvey’s words were no more than verbal posturing to mask a lack of substance? With precious little fluidity in evidence the work sat in its own state of stasis, seemingly arising from nothing – to which it would eventually return – and presented as its compositional centre piece fragmentary shard-like phrases overlaid upon each other. The development of musical ideas was limited by trying to make much out of too little. He was hampered still further by largely removing variations of dynamic gradation – much of the work stuck at a constant ppp or mf – which succeeded in de-humanising the music, making it mere sound. This ‘pure land’ could conceivably be post-apocalyptic vision from the aftermath of a big bang, where humanity and emotion have little place in the prevailing atmosphere. Beauty and purity as I understand the concepts bore almost no relation to the formless fabric that was presented and any sense of thoughtful or enquiring mysticism was arguably several worlds away. The BBC SSO played with precision under their chief conductor, whose to-the-point direction was noteworthy for its economy of gesture and dedication in the face of adversity. The Proms audience, many of whom around me also searched in vain for much meaningful substance, gave the work a polite if none too enthusiastic reception.

 

Mozart and Schumann on the other hand are two composers who recognised that it is the presence of human emotion that makes music the moving art form it can be. The Mozart concerto was launched into crisply enough by soloist and orchestra, although as things progressed it became clear this was not a performance that would plumb the inner depths of Mozart’s longest and most daring of piano concertos. Perhaps it was a question of balance that prevented deeper exploration in the first movement: the orchestra was seemingly always on the verge of swamping Kovacevich’s delicately phrased playing. His own first movement cadenza did not help either, being limited in imagination, repetitive in the upper register and a touch too extended to be really effective. It was however dispatched with feeling for Mozartian line and scale. The second movement brought a measure of profundity though never without a humorous edge to it. Freedom of mood and expression held sway across the third movement, with the orchestra-soloist balance being more carefully handled. Such dramatic moments as are given to the piano part were well integrated into the whole, being framed by orchestral march motifs that lent proceedings a rather formal air. In the final analysis there is no escaping the fact that Mozart wrote the work as a self-consciously virtuoso platform for his own skills. Kovacevich and Volkov succeeded in largely playing down empty virtuosity in favour of approaching something both more subtle and fulfilling.

 

Schumann’s third symphony presents both a massive five-movement arch structure and a rare moment of unalloyed happiness in the troubled composer’s life. That Volkov had clear ideas about the balancing of the work’s formal structure was clear, that he propelled it with the requisite energy from the fist movement’s opening bars was less so. This took its toll slightly on the required sense of organic development that should be present early on, and despite getting an impressive depth of tone from his players enough transparency in the texture infused the music with a light and airy feeling. The second movement scherzo was full of suitably rustic character and although rhythmic emphases were made a judiciously chosen basic tempo was stuck to. Sensitivity in balancing the orchestral forces is of concern in the third movement, in combination with the judgement of a tricky tempo indication. Schumann indicated ‘not fast’, which in my view Volkov rightly took to mean ‘not slow’, thereby giving the music sufficient inner movement. The need making the correct judgement is made all the clearer by the ensuing contrast of character in the fourth movement, Schumann’s solemn evocation of Cologne’s gothic cathedral. Volkov urged brass to give their lines forthrightly into the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall to bring architectural vision in the mind’s eye most effectively to life. Processions, fanfares and richly overlaid passages of grand sonority all played their part. The final movement felt as if it might almost misfire like a damp squib, given a few moments of unsure intonation at the start, but with sure progress the final pages were embarked upon. The work’s irrepressible climax was realised with just about enough passion to make a satisfactory conclusion to the piece and largely banish memories of the mediocrity with which the concert began.

 



Evan Dickerson

 


 



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