Romanian Rhapsody No.1
Viola Concerto [completed Serly]
Khamma [part-orchestrated Koechlin]
Concerto for Orchestra

Yuri Bashmet (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

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

The wide-ranging remit of the Proms these days makes it easy to ignore a concert of such focused and unassumingly logical programming as this one. Two of the works are somewhere on the cusp of the orchestral repertoire, one remains intriguingly rare and the other seems almost a throwback to the days when Prom concerts regularly consisted of showpieces and excerpts.

That piece being the First Romanian Rhapsody by Enescu – performed a staggering 23 times in the first half-century of the Proms, but just three times in the last 60 years. A pity – music this well-crafted and entertaining should never go out of fashion. Jukka-Pekka Saraste is not perhaps its most obvious conductor – but, after a slightly tentative opening, the performance generated a carnival-like mood as Enescu steers a lively course between simulated folk-isms and creative flair. 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of this protean artist and frequently inspiring composer: it would be fitting if a performance of one of his more significant orchestral works (the Second or Third Symphonies; Third Orchestral Suite; Vox Maris) could grace a programme in next year’s Proms.

Ironic that the needs of viola soloists meant that Bartók’s Viola Concerto, left in sketch – and sketchy! – form at his death, should have found an immediate place in the viola repertoire. Not that Tibor Serly’s completion is in any sense inadequate or half-hearted; indeed, and in the light of two more recent realisations, its evident liberties with the material appear necessary to fashion an intelligible musical design. Yet it remains a work difficult to make happen in performance – and, given a tendency to coast on executive laurels, Yuri Bashmet might not be the right performer to do so.

In the event, this was an engaging and largely committed account, the opening movement placing the viola firmly at the centre of the musical discourse so that the reticence of the ideas and the relative sparseness of scoring felt in keeping with the actual conception. Bashmet fairly galvanised the central cadenza, and delivered a touching account of the Andante religioso and a propulsive one of the finale. Saraste and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provided attentive support, though pacing in the two transitions between movements seemed a trifle hesitant. Even so, the inwardness and essential tragedy of the music as Bashmet apparently now views it were meaningfully conveyed.

The issue of realisation was put into perspective by the concert’s rarity – the ‘légende dansée’ that Debussy composed largely in short score during 1911-13 and left for Charles Koechlin to complete under his supervision. Unperformed in the former’s lifetime, and staged in 1947 just before the latter’s death, Khamma remains among the least known of Debussy’s works – though one hesitates to apply to epithet ‘major’ in this instance. Whereas the ballet score Jeux, on which the composer worked concurrently, packs a dizzying amount of musical incident into its content, Khamma is overtly music of gesture and illustration; evoking its undeniably tacky fin-de-siècle scenario – commissioned but seemingly uninspired by danseuse Maud Allen – with enviable resource but little real substance.

That said, the succession of increasingly expressive dances, framed by a fugitive introduction (the section scored by Debussy) and deceptively grandiose apotheosis, is tailor-made for choreography – such that its equal absence from the stage is more than surprising. Saraste has previously recorded this score, and clearly sees it as a work worth championing: the BBCSO responded with a clarity and conviction that, if it revealed no unsuspected masterpiece, suggested that this first performance at the Proms was more than a little overdue.

Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra is relatively familiar fare these days (this was its fourth Prom performance in 14 years): rightly so – as the composer, responding to the dictates of an irrational and unmusical Stalinisation of the arts in Poland in the early 1950s, produced a work whose amalgam of technical display, expressive poise and emotional substance is one which few composers aspiring to a ‘populist’ idiom could equal today. Saraste had the measure of the score’s against-the-odds integrity, though his tendency to avoid intervening in music which calls for a modicum of interpretative charisma gave the performance a literal quality which at times verged on plainness.

The opening ‘Intrada’ was solidly paced and deftly characterised, as was – bar a fractional mismatch of tempo in the demonstrative central section – the speculative ‘Capriccio, Notturno e Arioso’. While there was little to object to in Saraste’s handling of the formally complex – though never obscure – finale, its initial ‘Passacaglia’ failed to ‘lift’ at so dogged a tempo; then, after a suitably rumbustious ‘Toccata’, the closing ‘Corale’ built in intent if strait-laced fashion to its rousing conclusion. Perhapsit was Saraste’s unlikely rubato that threw the brass at the return of the chorale-theme, leaving the horns to see out its climactic rendition to anti-climactic effect. A pity, as there had been little to object to in terms of orchestral response before then.

Overall, then, a concert of imaginative contrasts – expertly and insightfully delivered. A relatively small house at least ensured that those present were there because they wanted to hear the music: not something that can always be taken for granted at live music events these days!

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