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Prom 42 - Arvo Pärt, Britten, Huw Watkins and Shostakovich: Alina Ibragimova (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner, Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.8.2010 (BBr)


Arvo Pärt: Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977)

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, op.33a (1945)

Huw Watkins: Violin Concerto (BBC commission: world première) (2010)

Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor, op.47 (1937)

, in conversation with Andrew McGregor, Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London, 17.8.2010

Gig (2005)

Four Inventions (2009)

Sad Steps (2008)

Nicola Crowe (flute), Jessica Grimes (clarinet)

Mali Lewis (harp)

Yuka Matsumoto – Agata Policinska Malocco (violins)

Edmond Smith (viola) – Frederique Legrand (cello)

Huw Watkins (piano)

Anna Blackmur – Charis Jenson (violins)

Rebecca Dyson – Jessica Tickle (violas)

Colin Clark – Ariana Kashefi (cellos)

At the Composer Portrait event, and in the Proms programme book, we were constantly bombarded with the fact that Huw Watkins is a lyrical composer – “the Concerto requires…extreme lyricism” (sic), “melodic lines floated in the highest register” and “strongly melodic in impulse” – as if someone was trying to sell us something which wasn’t really what it was claimed to be. I’d heard Gig before, and it had impressed me, so I was looking forward to this show. Watkins is a composer who knows what he wants and has the technical ability to make his ideas come to life in performance but I feel that there’s something missing. Certainly there is lyricism of a sort, and we must remember that today’s lyricism is totally different from, say, Mozart or Haydn’s concept of it. That’s OK, we understand how music has evolved and expect a broader palette when it comes to tunes – and, let’s be honest, music is reliant on good tunes for it to speak to its audience. Watkins’s brand of lyricism is defuse, to say the least, and the fleeting quality of his melodic gift is too fleeting to be grasped at one hearing. Consequently I listened to the BBC’s archived recordings of these two concerts in order to try and grasp the argument and the melodic line. Perhaps it’s me, I don’t know, but I failed to find anything melodically gripping in any of these works of his heard tonight. The major work – the Violin Concerto – was in the usual three movements; two fast and a central slow movement. It was full of fast passagework, rapid scratchy stuff, sounding rather unpleasant and saying absolutely nothing whatsoever. There were moments of repose and some lyricism, but none of it proved the claim for Watkins’s melodic gift. I must also mention that the orchestral writing didn’t really come to life, the whole work seemed firmly rooted to the ground, and never took off in the flights of fancy promised by the programme note. As an encore Ibragimova gave the finale of Watkins’s Partita for solo violin, which was also written for her, but it was more of the same, fast, scratchy, unfocused music which made a frenzied impression on the audience but was, again, devoid of substance.

This Concerto is Watkins’s third BBC Proms commission in five years – a Concerto for viola and cello was written for the 2005 Proms and Sad Songs was created for the 2008 Proms Chamber Music Series – and I wonder why the Corporation has showered this largesse on him when there are many other composers whose work would have not only been welcome tonight, but who also deserve this kind of showcase. Not to mention the vast amount of British music of the past which is seldom played and which demands our attention – not least David Blake’s seeringly beautiful Violin Concerto, a 1976 Proms commission, which has never been revived.

Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten was one of his breakthrough pieces in the West. It’s a short lament, a meditation on death, which slowly unfolds in the simplest of musical terms. It felt a trifle old hat tonight, but it’s still a very beautiful piece and deeply felt. It made a fine overture, but surely it’s more than simply a concert opener, to Britten’s superb Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, which Gardner and the orchestra delivered in fine style, with virtuoso playing and a so complete was the performance that there was a distinct tang of salty sea air in the RAH.

Gardner’s view of Shostakovich’s great 5th Symphony was straightforward, with clearly delineated lines and a splendid sense of power and urgency. At the end he bravely showed that he believed in the comment, from Testimony, that “The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat… It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ‘Your business is rejoicing’ and you rise, shakily, and go marching off muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’” We were left breathless, slowly marching away believing that “our business is rejoicing”, but knowing full well that it wasn’t. This performance was a splendid achievement, with excellent playing from the BBC Symphony.

Bob Briggs

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