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 PROM 55: Adams, Mozart and Strauss: Shai Wosner (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London 26.8.2009 (CR)

One of the best things about the Proms is being able to hear different orchestras on consecutive days, enabling audiences to get a real sense of an orchestra’s individual sound and style. Two days before this concert, I heard the LSO play under Gergiev, and I was struck by the difference in sound between that and this performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Both employed large forces (Shostakovich 8 and Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica), and both played well, but there was a lightness in the BBCSSO’s sound which was distinctly different from the LSO, particularly in the upper strings, which seemed to be brighter. I would hesitate to make a judgement on which was best; my opinion is that differences of this kind are a good thing. I’d much prefer variety than every performance by every orchestra sounding the same.

This evening’s performance was an eclectic mixture of John Adams, Mozart and Richard Strauss, and these seemingly disparate works complemented each other well. John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox was composed in 1996, in a tribute to the conductor and theorist Nicolas Slonimsky. Taking its material from Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale, Adams creates varied textures and colours throughout this 13 minute work. Extremes of pitch and scalic movements seem to be the order of the day, with lines flowing from low to high and vice versa. Minimalist-style repetitions emerge and percussion punctuates (with some moments reminding me of Short Ride in a Fast Machine). The music builds to its dramatic end with a sense of well-paced excitement, and this was a good reading by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The lightness of style carried over into Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto, K466, although I would have liked a little more weightiness in the dramatic minor key opening. Young Generation Artist Shai Wosner seemed a little uncertain at first, with the initial semiquaver passages hidden by the orchestra, but soon settled into a well controlled performance, with even technique, convincing dynamic range and well shaped melodic lines.

The final work in the concert was Richard Strauss’ Symphonica Domestica, a programmatic work which tells of a day in the life of the Strauss family. Initially unpopular with critics, this 45 minute tone poem uses Wagnerian leitmotive to depict the characters in the saga. Strauss’s writing is sufficiently immersive, however, that the music stands alone without the necessity to follow the plot, with textural and harmonic details providing a plethora of delights for the ear. Runnicles, set to become the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish from 1st September gave a convincing reading of this complex work, creating a clear, well balanced sound and some wonderfully expansive climactic points. The work’s multiple endings were well handled, and were given space to breathe without the momentum feeling compromised. It was, however, the brass who made this a truly memorable performance. They produced a glowing fortissimo tone which had a sense that the players were giving their all without over-forcing the sound, with triumphant performances from the whole section. Most memorable, however, was Mark O’Keeffe’s stunning trumpet playing, which mesmerised me from start to finish with its pure tone and impressive control.

Carla Rees


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