While BBC Proms 2019 was being launched at the Battersea Arts Centre, the BBC Symphony Orchestra – the “backbone” of any Proms season since its debut under Henry Wood at the Queen's Hall in August 1930 – was involved in this testing Barbican Hall outing with conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis, another Proms stalwart. A challenging affair of the kind the BBCSO has long been famous for, it proved a demanding, rarefied experience taking no prisoners, moderated in decibels, maximised in refinements of timbre, nuance and attack. As much a concentrated ensemble journey for listeners as players where the size and weight of forces frequently bore little relation to the chamber intimacies being proliferated before us, the delicacy of execution was arresting.
“During a holiday in Senegal, late in 1990, we were recommended to visit a small lake, known as Le Lac Rose [Lake Retba, sand dunes away from the Atlantic] where at midday the impact of the sun was such as to transform its whitish green colour to whitish pink [caused by dunaliella salina algae]. As things turned out we reached Le Lac Rose at midday, just in time to see it turn a marvellous translucent pink. The sight of it triggered a profound disturbance within me: the sort of disturbance which told me that the new orchestral work had begun.” Michael Tippett's swansong, The Rose Lake (1991-93), in the spirit of Beethoven and Debussy, not to mention non-occidental traditions, is about feeling more than description, “a shimmering, singing, ecstatic response” to scene and phenomenon. Commissioned jointly by the LSO, Boston Symphony and Toronto Symphony to celebrate the composer's ninetieth-birthday, it was premiered in the Barbican Hall under Sir Colin Davis in February 1995.
In one movement divided into twelve variously connected sections – five “rapturously lyrical” Lake Songs, five sound-block interludes or episodes (“a backdrop mosaic of contrasting musical tiles”), framed by a prelude and postlude, medium fast – it's shot through with all manner of images, quotationary reminiscences and subliminal psychological associations. From echoes of earlier works (King Priam) to Wagner (the infra-cosmic E-flat opening Rheingold, the “deep-sea drone” of Oliver Soden's programme note) and Stravinsky. Variously guised, one classically shaped turn of notes becomes a pervasive, haunting thematic device. Quest more than valediction stamped the Tippett style. Knowing its circumstances, we may like to think of The Rose Lake as a twilight farewell. But in fact it's the ongoing, enduring tone poem of a day, from awakening to 'Full Song' blaze to sleep, from the sun ascending to leaving the sky.
Colouristically, its palette is multi-dimensioned, from translucent trills to sweeping, spaced string unisons to gravity bass regions to a brave tuba solo. Nine percussion players are called for, two of them in charge, adventurously and athletically, of a bank of chromatically tuned rototoms spanning three octaves. Familiar enough from Pink Floyd, Queen, the ELO, Van Halen and others, their deployment, typical of Tippett's cross-over ear, youthfully seeking new sonorities, makes for a richly suggestive sonic canvas – less a lake impression than a whole nearby/distant tumult of sounds human, animal and winged, focussed/blurred in November heat and changing light.
Over the years I have to confess to a somewhat ambivalent relationship with Tippett's music. As a young pianist, I admired the Concerto and was into the Sonatas, learning the King Priam-derived Second. But at the London premiere of Songs of Dov, in 1970, I, alone among many, found it impossible to share the enthusiasm of colleagues, walking out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall to the public bemusement of my then editor. I found The Knot Garden and The Ice Break hard-going, as much for the composer's librettos as anything else. The Rose Lake is another matter, an eloquent tapestry of beautiful shaping and vision, veritably a director's soundtrack for faraway pools of African water waiting to be filmed. Home in twenty-seven minutes – quicker than the recordings by Sir Colin (thirty) or Richard Hickox (twenty-nine), the publishers specify twenty-five – Andrew Davis controlled an atmospheric performance, sensitive to paragraphing, balance and detail, and wonderfully inexorable in its nightfall finish. Not always absolutely clean perhaps (the tuba in the tenth section for instance – a nasty bit of writing however you look at it) but always a remarkable percussion display irrespective of the dynamic spectrum. The battery of sci-fi rototoms being nursed and carried off during the interval (thirty-six are listed in the score) was a sight to behold.
“All the birds pay tribute to me, for today I wed a goddess … and now we stand by the lake, in crimson blossoms, in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear, burning in amorous conflagrations.” Inspired by Tadeusz Miciński's symbolist nature poem May Night, Szymanowski's pre-Revolution First Violin Concerto written in Ukraine (1916) witnessed the inspiring Lisa Batiashvili at her calm, gracious best, floating wraith-like in and out of nowhere, her stops and harmonics as pure and sweet-toned as they come, her stance arching into the highs, stooping to caress the lows. She loves the ecstasy of this music with a whiteness and blossoming intoxication more angelic than carnal. This was Szymanowski speaking to us, a man courteous and perfumed in his expressions of physical passion and emotion, contrasting the naked hot-house fires of a Scriabin. The cadenza (Paweł Kochański's), like the opening and finish, was breathtaking, redolent of remembered dreams, of a love-letter for someone gone, wistful gentleness to the fore. Davis spun a cultured framework, less urgently insistent or dynamically forward at the start than some (the better for that), the seven main climax areas paced and spacious.
Several conductors – Leinsdorf, Constant, Abbado (adapted from Leinsdorf) – have attempted Suites from Pelléas et Mélisande, the five Acts of which, produced in Paris in 1902, contain roughly half the music Debussy ever wrote for orchestra. Following his predecessors, this latest attempt, by the French-Armenian Alain Altinoglu, premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic in September 2017, takes its starting point from the introduction, Act preludes, scene interludes and close of the opera. “I wanted to preserve the staging of the work”, he's said, “and proceeded in chronological order from the slow and sombre introduction to the brilliance of the final C-sharp major following the death of Mélisande … I chose not to have the vocal parts played by an instrument, but instead to keep the orchestral mood. Oddly enough, most of the excerpts transition from one to the next like magic, and the harmonic construction preserves a classically 'Debussy-esque' feeling: there’s barely a perfect cadence to be found in Pelléas!”.
It works well enough, what additional material there is gelling comfortably. But, mirroring the action of Pelléas et Mélisande, and the theatrically purposeful scene/mood-setting of much of its instrumental invention, the sum of the whole ends up inevitably as slow and anticlimactic. It would make a good opener or entr’acte in a French programme (Altinoglu's Berlin strategy). But it's a flat way to finish a concert. Sir Andrew's taste and grasp of Gallic style, if not always the appropriateness of his 'Proms' beaming and good cheer, ensured a responsive, idiomatic reading.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBCSO www.bbc.co.uk/orchestras/so
- BBC Radio 3 www.bbc.co.uk/radio3
- Barbican www.barbican.org.uk
- Proms 2019
- Andrew Davis & BBCSO Chandos releases include...:
- Tippett Symphonies recorded by BBC Scottish SO & Martyn Brabbins:
- 3, 4 & B-flat
- 1 & 2