Frescoes, Taras Bulba…

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Taras Bulba

Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)

Paul Lewis (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 29 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Prom was a curious experience.

Its oddity was partly due to the Albert Hall acoustic: some sounds were swallowed up and some blazoned out with shining sonic distinctiveness.

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca make interesting music. In 1954, on a visit to Arezzo, Martinů saw eight frescoes illustrating the legend of the True Cross. The music’s three movements depict visions to the Queen of Sheba and the Emperor Constantine and the Emperor’s routing of pagan hordes at Rome and Jerusalem. “I tried to express in musical terms that kind of solemnly immobile calm and semi-darkness, that palette of colours creating an atmosphere filled with delicate, peaceful and moving poetry,” the composer wrote.

Martinů’s music is colourful and robust, his melodies soaring, his harmonies often surprising, his shifts of emphasis brusque. It is hard, then, to keep the movement of this alert, surging music within the bounds of “delicate, peaceful and moving poetry”. In the first two movements particularly, Sir Andrew gave us muted rather than restraint; a “solemnly immobile calm and semi-darkness” that was unadventurous.

Mozart’s A major is, rightly, one of his best-loved piano concertos. Its first movement is forward-looking and buoyant; the slow movement is delicate and sorrowful and the last movement dances with high spirits. Paul Lewis proved responsive to the work’s exuberance, private hurt and gaiety. His playing-style was controlled and razor-sharp throughout, giving precision to Mozart’s optimism and exquisite depth to his sadness. One niggle: I wish he would phrase runs and arpeggios with the same fine care he brings to the melodic writing – in the manner of the young Paul Badura-Skoda, who, in the 1950s, made Mozart’s scales sing radiantly.

In the first movement, Sir Andrew’s accompaniment was lively but avuncular; something more quick-witted was needed, but the latter half of the slow movement – accompaniment from woodwind alone, then strings alone – was consummate: soloist and orchestra came together magically, yet went their own stylistic ways again in the finale.

In Kindertotenlieder, Petra Lang came to the rescue as a replacement for Alice Coote. Lang’s singing, understandably, was careful – stoic and noble, yet also monotone and tight. For whatever reason, the BBCSO was rather tight, too. The harp was delicately plaintive and the strings lamented gravely, with silken sheen. In the last song, the brass woke things up, albeit a little. Mahler is vivid; Mahler is diverse; Mahler is dangerous. Not tonight!

Taras Bulba’s first movement was not especially arresting, although the restored organ added body and interest. Conductor and orchestra, however, were prosaic: side-steps heralded by leaden pauses. When Janáček shifts from one of his styles to another, the change should lurch vibrantly, with stupendous, tortured energy. The second movement breathed into life, though: it was exhilarating, rasping and exciting.

The last movement was a mixture. The leaden galumphing returned – but there was also abrasive vigour, increasingly so as Janáček’s tremendous climax was approached. The brass players brayed; the timpanist thumped magisterially; the organ crowed resplendently. The final bars were magnificent.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 4 August at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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