20 August 1962 [Dillon replacing Musgrave]

Composer Portrait
James Dillon
Zone (… de azul)
… Once Upon a Time
Royal Scottish Academy MusicLab
Jessica Cottis
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 45
Der Schauspieldirektor – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35
La navette [UK premiere]
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 (Little Russian) [Revised Version]

Boris Giltburg (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha GusovThis was a recreation (almost) of a Prom given on 20 August 1962 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (currently in its 75th-year). Such generosity of programming reflected the norm back then; indeed today the Mozart, Liszt and Rimsky pieces, forming this concert’s first half, could well count, and be accepted, as a whole evening’s worth. (Discuss.) For the August 1962 occasion the versatile and open-minded Norman Del Mar conducted; and, as a welcome update, the then-new piece (by Thea Musgrave) was replaced by a recent one by another Scottish-born composer, James Dillon.

Boris Giltburg. Photograph: Eric RichmondLike Norman Del Mar, Martyn Brabbins is a notable all-rounder, seasoned in the classics and sympathetic to the latest music. The concert opened with some neatly played, rhythmically spruce Mozart, bubbly woodwinds delighting the ear. We then swapped one Boris for another, Giltburg for the “unable to appear” Berezovsky. Boris Giltburg took full advantage of his unexpected Proms debut with playing of bravura and rhetoric, diablerie and elegance. With fine support from Brabbins and the BBCSSO, not least contributions of the utmost camaraderie from clarinettist Yann Ghiro, Giltburg brought fresh impetus and romance to this concentrated piano concerto. His encore was welcome and special, a spellbinding account of Liszt’s La Leggierezza (the second of his three Concert Studies), a glittering surface decorating a nebula of sepulchral tones. (The 1962 soloist, with or without an encore, was David Wilde.)

Scheherazade has had numerous indignities piled upon it over the decades (in our time most infamously by Gergiev). Instead of mauling it, Brabbins brought clarity and flow to each of the movements, the work launched by a grave summons from the trombones. Throughout there was some splendid solo work, not least those representing the story-teller herself, Janice Graham providing some winsome and, when required, agitated violin contributions; gleaming top notes, too. This was a performance that didn’t force the music along or drag it to stasis and which relayed Rimsky’s many musical observations without denuding the score’s fantastical elements. If the finale could have been driven a little more – and it’s rock-crashing climax wouldn’t have sunk Atlantis – then Brabbins’s thought-through and closely observed conducting, backed to the hilt by the BBCSSO, was throughout appetising and new-minted.

The first half’s ninety minutes had flown by; a tribute to the music and these performances, unfailingly well-rehearsed. Such musical quality and preparedness also informed the second half.

James Dillon’s La navette (2001) for its 26 minutes (longer than the 20 suggested) engrossed the listener in its hallucinatory effects. Scored for a large but not extravagant orchestra, Dillon enthrals with his fastidiously worked textures and timbres and the densely weaved yet luminous soundworld. This slow if varied (and logically organised) processional – recalling such immortal ‘moderns’ as Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, Boulez’s Rituel and Stockhausen’s Trans (and maybe too George Lopez’s Landscape with Martydom, which Michael Gielen has recorded) – extends a lot of information to the open-eared and alert listener, all of which fits microscopically into a large expanse of inexorable growth and rhythmic automata. In this pristinely executed performance (antiphonal violins serving a new work just as revealingly as the nineteenth-century ones, Dillon’s writing for them sometimes Baroque in figuration), La navette (shuttle) moved like clockwork and fitted together transparently. The composer embraced the conductor for a job well done and certainly worth doing.

Earlier, in the RCM pre-concert Composer Portrait event, Glaswegian Dillon (born 1950) had spoken interestingly about his musical motivations, and how important timbre and touch are to music and its interpretation. Four of Dillon’s pieces were performed – and remarkably well, too – by students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama, its MusicLab ensemble. Zone (… de azul) has Mediterranean connections and shimmers with a myriad of colours and effects (although the ear tired of muted trumpet and trombone) which increases in tension to disruption. Ed Cohen played (with assurance) two miniatures for piano. Charm (with at least three meanings, not least a fundamental particle) has its Impressionistic leanings (from Debussy to Boulez’s Notations, with Tippett present in the arabesques); while Dragonfly seemed of birth and take-off, a rainbow conjured. Finally, Jessica Cortis (Donald Runnicles’s assistant at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) returned to direct … Once Upon a Time (1980), Dillon’s acknowledged ‘opus one’, scored similarly to Varèse’s Octandre (winds and brass with double bass) – shrieking, subterranean, frenzied, obsessively organised, music evoking the beginning of time annotated in the most sophisticated way, at once discombobulating and enthralling.

Following Dillon’s La navette, the indefatigable Brabbins (he recently conducted Beethoven’s nine symphonies during a single day … anything Lorin Maazel can do…) and the equally unflagging BBCSSO continued with Tchaikovsky’s too rarely heard Second Symphony, its delightful Ukrainian tunes given with affection, light and shade, as well as plenty of attack when required. The wedding march second-movement was buoyant and wry, the scherzo poised and pointed, and the finale (uncut, which it may not have been in 1962) was suitably stealthy (but the dead-sounding and noisily-loud cymbal clashes were an aberration).

Come to the emphatic final bars, there was a real feeling of a worthwhile (three-hour) journey having been undertaken and bringing a safe arrival, the listener exhilarated and energised by the freshness made of the familiar and the enriching stimulus of the new, their juxtaposition exactly matched and positioned in a well-shaped and satisfying programme. Hopefully there will be more such reminiscences to Proms of yesteryear and supplemented by the latest most-challenging works: otherwise music gets compartmentalised and that is unhealthy. This Prom worked a treat, not because of its quantity but because of the quality (which must always come first) of music and performance. I wonder if the orchestra and conductor were on double time!

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