Veni, veni Emmanuel
Chantefleurs et Chantefables
Colin Currie (percussion)
Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)
Martin Robertson (alto saxophone) & Peter Erskine (drums)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 16 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This late-night Prom was in homage to the late Sir John Drummond, Proms Director between 1985 and 1995, bucked the trend of recent such Proms by being far less well attended than its early-evening predecessor: the combo of three of Drummond’s most notable world premieres saw the audience fall by two-thirds from the sell-out that had greeted the Bergen Philharmonic a few hours earlier.
A critic colleague had queried the late-night “ghetto-isation” of, in particular, Birtwistle’s Panic, suggesting that, instead, it should have been placed with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in the earlier Prom. What would have been the result? A much smaller audience for Bergen, and an equally small one for the late-night.
No, this was a perfect piece of planning – an exquisite trio of pieces that go to make the Proms what it is. Whatever the popular misconception of the Proms, it is actually a hotbed of the new. If, in this concert, it was Panic that fared less well, it doesn’t altar the superb track-record the Proms has in the constant purveying of the lifeblood of music: new works. This year alone we’ve already had challenges to age-old genres in Salonen’s big-boned Piano Concerto and David Matthews’s stunningly brilliant Sixth Symphony. Long may this tradition continue.
All three of the works given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins in this concert have been recorded – indeed the MacMillan and Lutoslawski more than once. Lutoslawski’s delicate song-cycle of ‘sung flowers and sung fables’ was his penultimate work and he conducted its première at the Proms in 1991, with its dedicatee the Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn making her Proms debut. Her light tone is perfect for Lutoslawski’s Ravel-like gossamer scoring of nine poems by Robert Desnos, describing various animals and plants.
I was disappointed to find that Veni, veni, Emmanuel was placed first and not last. Birtwistle’s Panic – the scandalous, centenary Last Night of the Proms commission for 1995 – caused the tabloids to choke and spit venom, hyperventilating as if an assault had been made on civilisation. But in fact this is a typical ritualistic Birtwistle work for two soloists – originally John Harle on alto saxophone (for whom it was written) and Paul Clavis on two sets of kit percussion, backed by wind, brass and additional percussion. Its Dionysian bacchanal rarely relents and I found I was less convinced 12 years on than I had been at that Last Night. I remembered both Harle and Clavis moving about the platform, but here only Peter Erskine did so, with Martin Robertson, with the distinctive wail of his instrument, staying still. Perhaps immediately after the most delicate of palettes of the Lutoslawski, Birtwistle’s block instrumentation seems too heavy. This earth-bound celebration would, I’m sure, have worked better first – although Birtwistle was the only composer in the hall to receive the applause – leaving MacMillan’s celestial ringing of chimes as a more fitting end to the concert.
Veni, veni, Emmanuel is one of the most successful pieces of contemporary music. First heard in a Scottish Chamber Orchestra Prom in 1992 (that should have been conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, who was ill, so Jukka-Pekka Saraste took over), it has, in the intervening 15 years, become a repertoire piece, keeping its original soloist Evelyn Glennie and now Colin Currie busy indeed.
With its insistent and memorable rhythmic drive, visual flair (the soloist alternating between three percussion ‘stations,’ including the tubular bells at the back) and with its final coup de théâtre, when the orchestra-players take up bells to offer a glistening backdrop to the ever-faster pealing of the soloist, Veni, veni, Emmanuel has lost none of its power to delight and amaze.
Colin Currie negotiated both platform and music faultlessly. On his rare bars off, he stood to the side to watch the orchestra, before dashing back to the multiple instruments he has to co-ordinate, sometimes at the same time, though mostly in complicated syncopation. There is no better example of how a piece of contemporary music can immediately engage an audience and it is both the final ringing chord dying away to silence and Lutoslawski’s beautiful and delicate French settings that will stick in my memory. The BBC Scottish SO was on top form, with Brabbins a regular and obviously favoured collaborator.
Sir John Drummond’s name lives on. The Drummond Fund, administered by the Royal Philharmonic Society, will commission new dance (Drummond’s other love) and music. Contributions are welcome (contact the RPS) and the first commissions will be announced next year, in readiness for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes centenary in 2009.