Prom 13: 30th July 2001

Symphony No.2 (The Four Temperaments)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat
Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)

Louis Lortie (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It says much about the continuing success of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s partnership with Osmo Vänskä that this diverse yet thoughtfully-conceived programme was brought off with conviction – and with a real appreciation of what makes these pieces crucial to each composer on their journey to maturity. All three works are a product of a ten-year period (or so) leading up to 1913 – each a contribution to the breaking-down of the prevailing late-Romantic ethos.

If Vänskä’s account of Nielsen’s Second Symphony was not quite all of a piece, this is primarily down to the composer. Portraying the four temperaments as a sequence ensures conceptual if not necessarily thematic unity; arguably such characterisation gets in the way of a fluid tonal process such as Nielsen had already demonstrated in his first symphonic essay and which was to be intensified in the following three symphonies.

It is difficult to feel the breezy conclusion of the ’sanguine’ movement (the finale) as the logical outcome of a process unleashed with the ’choleric’ opening, and pursued with searching emotional power in the ’melancholic’ third. Vänskä underlined these pungent moods, and brought a gentle irony to the ’phlegmatic’ section that found its parallel in the musing episode of the finale. As an interpretation at least the sum of its impressive parts, it augurs well for Vänskä’s recorded Nielsen cycle.

Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, a graduation piece with few peers, was treated to a surprisingly thoughtful reading. Louis Lortie impressed with some scintillating passagework in the outer sections, but was more concerned to bring out the music’s very Russian sense of fantasy, as well as forging a partnership with the orchestra. After the relative lack of co-ordination in the Thibaudet/Hickox Ravel ’G major’ in Prom 9, this was more thanwelcome, though the rather stolid feel of the ’big tune’, and the consequent holding back on its recurrences, gave the music a fulsomeness that Prokofiev was surely intent on undermining, as in many of his pieces over the next quarter-century.

Romanticism in Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony is not so much undermined as rendered from a defiantly English perspective. It was interesting now to hear Vänskä interpreting it as part of the European symphonic tradition, in an account which, avoiding easy nostalgia, reaffirmed the music’s fervent perspective on the passing of an era.

The headlong tempo for the main opening ’Allegro’, and the almost brutal tread of the finale’s march-episode, may not have pleased those who recall this symphony as a mid-century mainstay of the Proms. Yet the elegiac restraint of the ’Lento’, plangent in its modal inflections and with a powerful climactic emotional surge, has rarely been bettered, while nocturnal shadows gave the scherzo’s more picturesque elements an ambivalent unease. The introduction and epilogue brought the symphonic groundplan unobtrusively full-circle, with some wonderfully refined string playing. Excellent solo contributions too, with Chris Yates’s viola and James Horan’s cor anglais solos in the slow movement holding an attentive audience spellbound.

Osmo Vänskä becomes Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra with effect from the 2003/4 season. The BBC Scottish Symphony will miss him – and so will the Proms.

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

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