Prom 12: 29th July 2001 – KNOTGRASS ELEGY

Sally Beamish
Knotgrass Elegy (BBC commission: world premiere)
Violin Concerto No.2
The Firebird – Suite (1945)

Susan Bullock (soprano)
Brian Asawa (counter-tenor)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Tommy Smith (saxophones)
James Ehnes (violin)

BBC Symphony Chorus, New London Children’s Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 29 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Having being blown away (again!) by the inventiveness of Britten’s Spring Symphony the night before (Prom 11), it would hardly be fair to expect a similar reaction to a brand new piece.

Comparisons are inevitable though – both Spring Symphony and Knotgrass Elegy are around the 45-minute mark, both require three vocal soloists, a children’s and adult chorus, and a large orchestra; Beamish adds a solo saxophonist and a pointless ’dance band’.

I was not prepared for the toe-curling awfulness of Knotgrass Elegy.

It is difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps when a composer is faced with a text (by Donald Goodbrand Saunders) with such rhymes as “tricks / pick ’n’ mix” or “span / business plan” or “Mother, may we go out and play / And laugh and dance the livelong day,” it is difficult to come up with much that is inspiring, though one should start by noticing that the word potential has not got four syllables! The poor members of the New London Children’s Choir where faced with nothing more than this sort of nursery rhyme, reminiscent of children’s television in the 1960s – with music to match.

It’s difficult to know which was worse. The sight of Brian Asawa camping it up in a sparkling red cocktail-jacket singing a kitsch imitation of a second-rate Broadway number; or two such esteemed singers as Susan Bullock and Christopher Maltman given not one memorable vocal line.

The more astringent side of Beamish’s musical language had been watered down for the occasion. Rule number one when writing for amateur and/or children’s choirs: don’t write down to them! A few glances at pretty much anything by Britten would help to overcome Beamish’s failing here.

As a result the BBC Symphony Chorus – which under Stephen Jackson’s leadership can sing works as complex as Tippett’s The Mask of Time and make them sound the most natural thing in the world – had nothing more interesting to do than sing tedious chorale-like music that was no challenge to them at all.

Tommy Smith, wandering around improvising on various saxophones served no purpose, save to detract one’s attention from the unremitting boredom of the ’’written out” music. The BBCSO, despite being led by Sir Andrew Davis with his customary enthusiasm, looked thoroughly disengaged. Who could blame them?

That such large, and expensive, forces should be brought together and given such wide exposure in this piece – sanctimonious, amateurish tosh – is nothing short of scandalous.

One respected musical colleague pointed out to me during the interval that in an ideal world one would recognise a good composer after a few bars. In a less than ideal world maybe it would take a movement. To get through fifty minutes and not hear one individual idea takes some doing. According to the programme, Beamish has enough commissions to keep her going for some time. What is there left to say?

It was down to the young Canadian violinist, James Ehnes (making his British debut), to bring a touch of class with a sparkling account of the Prokofiev concerto. He had the right balance of expressive warmth and light-fingered dexterity, which along with a thoroughly decent account of the 1945 Firebird Suite gave some cheer at the end of an otherwise dismal evening.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast this Thursday, 2 August, at 2 o’clock

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