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Proms Chamber Music 18 - Stravinsky, Tom Arthurs, Gwilym Simcock and Martinů: Christian Poltéra (cello), Szymanowski Quartet (Andrzej Bielow, Grzegorz Kotow (violins), Vladimir Mykytka (viola), Marcin Sieniawski (cello)), Claudio Bohórquez (cello), Cadogan Hall, London, 31.8.2009 (BBr)


 Stravinsky: Suite: The Soldiers Tale (1919)
Tom Arthurs: And Distant Shore (BBC co–commission with the Royal Philharmonic Society: world première) (2009)
Gwilym Simcock: Contours (2009)
Martinů: La revue de cuisine (1927)

To end this weekend’s festival within a festival a programme of, hopefully, lighter fare. But lighter isn’t exactly a word you could apply to Stravinsky’s The Soldiers Tale. To be sure it’s not a particularly difficult listen, but it is very heavily satirical and the music is hard nosed and, more often than not, quite aggressive. Even this little suite for violin, clarinet and piano is fairly hard work, and a performance as good as this merely serves to make the music all the more angular. Ilya Gringolts made a splendid soldier, always in command and leading the way. Ronald van Spaendonck was a splendid Devil but, on occasion, he was inaudible due to, mainly, the piano being on the long stick and thus putting out quite some volume. Llŷr Williams completed the trinity with excellent support.

Bohuslav Martinů’s jazz inflected ballet La revue de cuisine, concerning the amorous lives of kitchen utensils, is a marvelous piece of fluff, being made up of two marches, a charleston and a tango. Here, van Spaendonck, Gringolts and Williams were joined by Giuliano Sommerhalder (trumpet), Helen Simons (bassoon) and Li-Wei (cello) for a quarter hour of totally enjoyable nonsense.

What came between was something quite different, and I am at a loss to understand exactly how this music could have been considered (let alone commissioned) to stand side by side with the wealth of great music presented over the three days.

Tom Arthurs is a jazzman, and his And Distant Shore, for two trumpets (Arthurs is a trumpeter himself) and piano, was a dull, very slow, directionless piece, which seemed to hold true the contention that “well, it’s good enough for jazz.” Good enough for jazz it might have been but it’s certainly substandard when it comes to the concert hall. At best one could consider it to be naïve, at worst, well, the sparcity of material and the inability of the composer to develop what little material he had at his disposal was woeful. After a couple of minutes I found myself wondering if the meaningless trumpet calls might, somehow, miraculously, transmogrify into the fanfares from Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score for MacArthur. Of course, this never happened and the piece went on and on. I cannot understand whether Arthurs has pretentions to be a “classical” composer or whether, as he stated all music is music. Yes, he’s right. Good and bad. He is on the right track there.

Gwilym Simcock’s Contours for piano and string sextet took a different tack, but ultimately had the same effect. Choosing a moderate tempo, he took us through early 20th century English music – there was much pastoral writing of the “cow pat” school – which had been done so expertly at the time, and created a rather bland landscape which came from nowhere and stayed there throughout its playing time. If Arthus could conjure up feelings of annoyance in his music, Simcock only achieved boredom.

The real worry about this kind of music is that if Arthurs’ and Simcock’s jazz followers really believe that this is what contemporary classical music composition is all about, then the real thing will go by unnoticed. This should not be allowed to happen. A most unsatisfactory ending to a very stimulating series of concerts.

Bob Briggs  

For further details about forthcoming performances by 2009 BBC Proms the website


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