Pictures at the Proms

Britten
The Prince of the Pagodas [excerpts]
Corigliano
Clarinet Concerto [London première]
Mussorgsky, orch. various
Pictures at an Exhibition:

Promenade 1, orch. Byrwec Ellison (1995)

Gnomus, orch. Sergei Gorchakov (1944)

Promenade 2, orch. Walter Goehr (1942)

Il vecchio castello, orch. Emile Naoumoff (1991)

Promenade 3 – Tuileries, orch. Geert van Keulen (1992)

Bydlo, orch. Vladimir Ashkenazy (1990)

Promenade 4, orch. Carl Simpson (1995)

Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, orch. Lucien Cailliet (1937)

Two Polish Jews, One Rich, One Poor (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle), orch. Sir Henry Wood (1915)

Promenade 5, orch. Lawrence Leonard (1975)

Limoges. Le marché, orch. Leo Funtek (1922)

Catacombae (Sepulcrum romanum), orch. John Boyd (1986)

Cum mortuis in lingua mortua, orch. Ravel (1922)

The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba-Yaga), orch. Leopold Stokowski (1938)

The Great Gate of Kiev, orch. Douglas Gamley (1980)

Michael Collins (clarinet)

BBC Symphony Chorus (men’s voices)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 1 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The encore, “Happy Birthday to You”, summoned by leader Stephen Bryant was a nice tribute to Leonard Slatkin at, this, his 60th-birthday concert, given on the day itself. The party may be louder and longer on 11 September, the Last Night of the Proms, which officially closes Slatkin’s tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as Chief Conductor, but this was an impressive evening that included a long-awaited (27 years in fact) London première of an outstanding clarinet concerto, some Britten that fitted in with the season’s East-West theme and a return of a Slatkin favourite, Pictures at an Exhibition orchestrated by many hands.

We started with two-thirds of the advertised excerpts from Britten’s scintillating ballet score, The Prince of the Pagodas, where he manifestly used the Gamelan music he had heard on a visit to Bali. Here we got the most Gamelan-inspired section, a sequence from Act 2, Scene 2 as Belle Rose first discovers the magical land of the Pagodas and then dances with the Prince. Britten skilfully recreates the distinctive Gamelan timbres on a battery of tuned percussion, which came over loud and clear, although I wasn’t convinced Slatkin’s view of the piece would actually work in a staged production; the music didn’t quite dance.

Leather-jacketed Michael Collins did dance in John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto completed in 1977 for the New York Philharmonic and its long-standing, still-playing principal clarinettist, Stanley Drucker (a Philharmonic member for over 50 years now); the dedication is “to Lenny and Stanley”, Bernstein conducted the première. Why the concerto has taken so long to reach London is a mystery, but Slatkin and Collins’s performance more than made up for its extended absence. This is a large-scale three-movement work, the second of which, ‘Elegy’, is in memory of the composer’s father, also John, who was Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1966, and encompasses a duet between clarinet and solo violin. The work opens with a movement entitled ‘Cadenzas’, the clarinet, without bar lines, plunging headlong into the first, entitled ‘Ignis fatuus’ (Wil-o’-the-wisp) and, following an extended interlude just as virtuosic for the orchestra, ends with the second one, ‘Corona Solis’ (Corona of the Sun), fittingly in blazes of brilliant light.

By contrast the slow movement inhabits the world of Mahler and Shostakovich, a slow, poignant trajectory that eloquently presents a quiet plateau in between the faster flanking movements. The finale, ‘Antiphonal Toccata’, takes a leaf out of Gabrieli’s book and uses music from his 1597 Sonata pian’ e forte and positions players around the auditorium (five French horns, and pairs of trumpets and clarinets) adding a further spatial element over and above that of the solo instrument against orchestra. Michael Collins’s virtuosity is never in doubt and he pulled out of the hat one of the most thrillingly exciting concerto performances of this Proms season. I trust we won’t have to wait another 27 years to hear Corigliano’s concerto again in London.

Just over 13 years ago, on 19 August 1991 to be precise, Leonard Slatkin conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in a personal choice of orchestrations for each of Mussorgsky’s Pictures. For this birthday concert, he returned to the idea and, apart from repeating Lucien Cailliet’s ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’, he chose different orchestrations this time, no fewer than four had been written since Slatkin’s first Prom set.

Slatkin started with a brief spoken introduction comparing various composers’ attempts at orchestrating Mussorgsky’s solo piano original, none of the excerpts being from the complete performance to follow. The first orchestration, by Byrwec Ellison, arrestingly had the exhibition-visitor portrayed first by percussion and interpolated other music as a counterpoint, a snatch of Purcell that Britten had taken for his Young Person’s Guide. It also brought a nice symmetry with the final orchestration, by Douglas Gamley, who returned to banks of percussion (as well as men’s chorus and organ) in ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’.

In between we had fresh perspectives on not only each picture but also the promenades in between, including the one (No.5) that Ravel omitted. This was provided by Lawrence Leonard, who kept Mussorgsky’s original piano line, overlaying it with shifting orchestration.

Sergei Gorchakov provided the darker-hued Gnomus (it was Kurt Masur’s championing of Gorchakov’s orchestration that originally alerted Slatkin to the myriad possibilities for Pictures), while Bulgarian Emil Naoumoff re-introduced the piano as counterpoint in The Old Castle to an alto flute (itself in marked contrast to Ravel’s alto saxophone). Ashkenazy followed Mussorgsky in a way that Ravel did not in ‘Bydlo’ by having the main theme fortissimo to start, and after Cailliet’s “irresistible” (to quote Slatkin) evocation of the unhatched chicks, came our very own Henry Wood in ‘Two Polish Jews’, typically playing up contrasts, although he was using Rimsky-Korsakov’s discredited version, Mussorgsky’s original not actually appearing until 1931.

Ravel, in 1922, also used the Rimsky-Korsakov edition, as did another orchestrator from that same year, Czech-born, Finland-based Leo Funtek, barely able to keep grip on Mussorgsky’s gossipmongers in the ‘Market at Limoges’. Ravel was retained with his peerless evocation ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua’, which followed John Boyd’s ‘Catacombs’. Stokowski’s larger-than-life ‘Babi-Yaga’ took us up to Gamley’s ‘Great Gate’, the latter from 1968, not as shown above (which replicates the programme information): other discrepancies include the Ashkenazy orchestration, which was certainly made before 1990 given he recorded it in 1982, and one wouldn’t have known from the programme that Lawrence Leonard died a couple of years ago!

It’s an odd experience hearing familiar music in unfamiliar terms, although Mussorgsky always shines through. I suspect Slatkin has more pot-pourri Pictures to present. In 1991 we had nine composers (with Sir Henry Wood’s ‘Great Gate’ as an encore); here we had 15, and there may be more orchestrations to choose from in due course.

I hope Slatkin brings some more Pictures to the Proms; although Henry Wood’s version complete would be the thing, especially when the bust of the Proms’ founder is looking down from on high in the Royal Albert Hall!

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