The Royal Albert Hall was more than two-thirds full for this peculiar programme, bookending London and UK premieres of novelties (not dissimilar in idiom) with neo-classical provocations conceived a century apart.
Given the rhythmic complexity and non-traditional “irrationally functional” harmony of Thomas Adès’s own music (sometimes sounding familiar and at other times not at all), it was no surprise to find the composer as conductor taking a radical course in the Beethoven. His precarious whirlwind tempos for the outer movements went beyond authenticist norms but seemed differently motivated. With the music conducted one in a bar its longer breaths took precedence over rhetorical incident; all over in 23 minutes. Most striking was the refusal to accommodate acoustic reality, the reverberant RAH smudging details even when articulated with clarity. Listeners at home will have heard more.
Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures was commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Saffron Hall and first heard in 2014. The soloist then was Pekka Kuusisto, a fashionable player in a way that Augustin Hadelich, with his distinctive old-world sonority and higher seriousness, could never be. Hadelich brought new warmth and power to Adès’s Violin Concerto in a wonderful commercial recording but his Proms debut was rather wasted on Coll’s self-confident but disconnected parade of sonic happenings.
This proved an entirely contemporary homage to flamenco, the reminiscences too knowing and ironically broken-backed to amount to much. The piece starts well with a dramatic chordal outburst splintering into ethereal pizzicatos for the soloist, but there are diminishing returns thereafter and nothing spectacular for the violinist to do. Although one appreciated a certain timbral inventiveness and sophistication, the frequent resort to novelty percussion would have felt fresher in the 1920s. As in the music of his mentor, Adès of course, the music – like the soloist – seemed to be walking a tightrope over a sonic chasm, the heights and the depths of the spectrum emphasised at the expense of the traditional centre.
Following the interval came Lieux retrouvés, another four-movement suite and a first for Adès’s orchestral version in the UK after the premiere in Lucerne with the same soloist in March. In the case of the Coll composition a version for violin and piano followed the orchestral original. As in some other recent scores by Adès, each movement toys more or less obsessively with a single idea taken (here literally) on an unpredictable journey.
The individual subtitles suggest the inspiration of the natural world although the second, ‘La montaigne’, seems slightly disingenuous given that the music takes off from Adès’s opera The Tempest. ‘Les champs’, the slow movement, remains delicate and chaste in its new form, climbing onwards and upwards to stratospheric heights on the basis of a romantic aspiring figure, while the final romp combines Offenbach with the more urban sounds of ‘La ville’.
The effect in the Hall was ear-tickling, even poignant, yet ultimately underwhelming, in part because the composer and his performers, Steven Isserlis in particular, preferred intimate reverie to the outsize projection required in the big barn, and the musicians were frequently drowned out by the unwrapping of cough lozenges.
The low-key atmosphere persisted through the final item, a sprightly ‘Classical’ Symphony, neither wild nor stately and occasionally streamlined. Like the rest of the night’s bill of fare it would have sounded more plausible in Milton Court. This very fine ensemble has given better concerts.