The Proms and British Musical Life – A Concert of Proms Premieres

Schoenberg
Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 [1922 Version]
Bridge
There is a willow grows aslant a brook – Impression for small orchestra
Julian Anderson
The Stations of the Sun
Goehr
Colossus or Panic, Op.55 – Symphonic fragment after Goya
Britten
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen


Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 23 April, 2007
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

This concert was given as part of the BBC’s three-day conference on the Proms, being held at the British Library. All the works played here had a premiere at the Proms. Nicholas Kenyon, the current and soon-to-be outgoing Director of the Proms was on hand to pay tribute to previous generations of Proms administrators, highlighting William Glock who began the policy of commissioning works. Kenyon noted that the 2007 season, which will celebrate the 80th-anniversary of the BBC’s stewardship of the Proms, will also reprise numerous Proms-premiered works.

Kenyon also noted the incredible boldness of Henry Wood in presenting Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in the 1912 season, a World Premiere, and quoted Wood’s remark in rehearsal: “Stick to it gentlemen, this is nothing to what you’ll have to play in 25 years’ time!” Even now the work can prove hard to grasp and a significant challenge for orchestras – not this evening, however. Oliver Knussen was an inspired choice to direct this programme; there are few musicians who can grasp the idioms of five such disparate works and present them with such conviction and authority. Knussen shares with many composer-conductors a self-effacing approach to all the music he directs – always concerned to present a score in the best possible light.

The performance of the Schoenberg was evocative. Knussen conducted Schoenberg’s 1922 revision, which is similar in scope (and size of orchestra) to the Original Version. (There is a further, 1949, version for smaller forces.) In the opening ‘Vorgefühle’ (Premonitions) every strand was clearly delineated, though the climaxes sounded congested, a flaw of this particular studio. The multiple instrumental solos of ‘Vergangenes’ (The Past) were handled with great eloquence, Knussen finding an austere beauty and a vein of expressive melancholy in the evolving lines and evincing the greatest care for detail. The veiled mysterious soundworld of ‘Farben’ (Chord-colours) brought to mind the fact that Schoenberg’s other art was that of a painter, one who heard colours with his mind’s ear as much as he saw them in his mind’s eye, here brought to life with haunting realism. The angry eruption of ‘Peripetie’ (Peripeteia) was in sharp contrast, its garish tones daubed in bold gestures. If the third piece is a veiled nocturne, this fourth is a nightmare vision. The dynamic contrasts of the final piece, ‘Das obligate Rezitativ’ (The obbligato Recitative), drew eloquent playing, though the pain level of the central climax was extreme in this acoustic.

Frank Bridge’s ‘Impression for Small Orchestra’, also a World Premiere at the Proms, in 1927, the composer conducting, could hardly have proved a greater contrast. With such a sub-title, Bridge may have misled commentators, and suggested the music as unfocused and meandering. Rather it is an acutely concentrated lament, comparable in its intensity and atmosphere to Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque, a work that Knussen admires greatly and has championed. Bridge’s title is the first line of Gertrude’s lament for Ophelia in “Hamlet”, and Bridge himself often referred to the work as ‘Ophelia’. (Knussen has written a piece called Ophelia Dances.) This performance was poignant and evocative, reaching towards a yearning climax with exquisite solo playing and a warmly expressive string sound.

In his spoken introduction Julian Anderson suggested that the 17-minute The Stations of the Sun (a BBC commission first heard at the 1998 Proms) marked the end of a phase in which he was concerned with the integration of folk idioms into his music. There is nothing obviously audible that could be described as ‘folk music’. The opening texture is glittering, melodic lines coming into focus from fragments in woodwinds and muted trumpets. Anderson also mentioned that although he didn’t write specifically for the Royal Albert Hall, he definitely had a resonant concert hall in mind, which is hardly a valid description of Studio 1, Maida Vale, and many of the climaxes overloaded the acoustic. As the first one subsided, an easing of tempo opened into a lush string chords and a flute melody which in turn released a battery of percussion and trumpets at the next climax in which the percussion completely obliterated the strings, the double basses clearly playing strenuously, but inaudibly. The dance, with drums, resumed, the music moving from lyrical expression to something far more angular and aggressive suffused with rhythmic vitality, which gradually relaxed over a series of rocking chords from double basses and cellos towards a peaceful close, disrupted In the final bars by an abrupt gesture, what the composer calls a “zoom”.

Responding to a question from Paul Guinery – a rare presence as Radio 3 no longer sends presenters to concerts that are recorded and left to a studio announcer to try and recreate a sense of occasion – Alexander Goehr was quite vague as to why he had selected Goya’s “The Colossus” (sometimes called “Panic”) as the source of his Boston Symphony Orchestra commission. This had its UK Premiere at the Proms in 1994 (also under Knussen). Although lasting 25 minutes, Goehr terms his piece ‘symphonic fragment’. In conversation with Paul Guinery, the composer merely suggested that as the giant figure, filling the frame, was the most immediately appreciable aspect of the image, with the smaller figures coming second, that the music’s opening gesture would need to be equivalently large, an approach he hadn’t taken before. This prosaic and technical description of his approach sounds like the work itself. The large-scale signal expressing the colossus appears, subsides and is repeated leading to passages for solo strings, xylophone and muted trombones and a clarinet melody. Goehr’s was the least overtly expressive work in the programme, concerned with texture and detail, lacking an overriding shape or a sense of direction. The urgency and violence of the opening gradually dissolved into a series of crepuscular textures vanishing into silence. Goehr notes that the second movement, a Maestoso slow March, has less immediate connection with the image, but the musical material came alive again and needed to be developed. The slow pulse is evident, the relationship to earlier material far less so, with the texture frequently becoming etiolated, reducing gradually to violins, harp and celesta. Knussen conducted with typical care and commitment, and Alexander Goehr, in his 75th-birthday year, was greeted with enthusiasm by audience and musicians alike.

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem retains its power to shock. It was first heard in New York, under Barbirolli, and its European Premiere was during the 1942 Proms. Knussen emphasised both the anger and the consolation of the score, relishing the extremes of dynamic contrast. As the opening ‘Lacrymosa’ sinks into the ‘Dies irae’, the intense woodwind arabesques pre-echo “Peter Grimes”. The final ‘Requiem aeternam evokes a yearning quality, as if reaching for solace that is never fully achieved. Here Knussen drew playing which looked forward to the sounds of Sad Shires that Britten conjured in “War Requiem”, The final chord was left hanging in the air, questioning and uneasy.

Oliver Knussen was applauded long and loud and, really, this imaginative and superbly performed programme deserved to have been heard in the Barbican Hall.

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