Prom 13 – On the Transmigration of Souls

Symphony No.44 in E minor (Trauer)
Piano Concerto No.3
Quiet City
On the Transmigration of Souls [European premiere]

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Celia Craig (cor anglais)
William Houghton (trumpet)

Southend Girls’ Choir
Southend Boys’ Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Currently the highest-profile classical composer alive today, John Adams has recently become Artist-in-Association with the BBCSO, so giving his conducting activities a regular outlet in the UK. Although composer-conductors are a rarer breed in modern times, Britten, Stravinsky (the latter having conducted nearly all Tchaikovsky’s symphonies) – and, more recently, Boulez, Gielen and Knussen – immediately spring to mind as musicians whose conducting prowess extends well beyond their own music to embrace a wide repertoire.

On the basis of this concert, however, Adams is not among their number. Efficient and purposeful in his direction of the orchestra, his performances rarely evinced a deeper or more meaningful identity with the works at hand. The account of Haydn’s ’Mourning’ symphony, lively and neatly turned, had little of the surging dynamism that give its outer movements an intensity remarkable even for his “Sturm und Drang” years. The canonic intricacies of the Menuetto were carefully delineated, but the rapt pathos of the ’Adagio’ – a peak of Haydn’s instrumental writing at whatever period – seemed little more than the sum of a decently-phrased melody line and rather earthbound part-writing. Moreover, ensemble failed to project with the definition possible even in the Albert Hall’s resonance – which, as the Northern Sinfonia demonstrated in Prom 5, can be deployed to the music’s advantage.

Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto emerged more characterfully, Adams catching the Mozartian piquancy of the ’Allegretto’ and finding a calm but never inert expression in the ’Adagio religioso’ which drew a keen response from strings and woodwind. What the performance lacked was interpretative nuance – essential with a pianist such as Hélène Grimaud, her response a spontaneity often bordering on recalcitrance. This concerto offers many opportunities for expressive dovetailing, few of which were taken here, and while the exhilarating interplay of the finale was not lacking energy, its finer shades of wit proved elusive. Grimaud is nonetheless among the more thought-provoking pianists of her generation. Her Bartók is undoubtedly an interpretation in the making, which she plays again in the Royal Festival Hall on 16 October.

It says much about the partisan nature of society as a whole that Adams should have courted so much controversy with a stage-work as balanced politically and ethically as The Death of Klinghoffer. So too in his commemoration of the events of ’9/11’, there is no attempt to glamorise tragedy or apostrophise emotional angst – rather to set personal grief in a context of collective recognition. The ground was laid effectively by Copland’s Quiet City – its ruminative unfolding of urban alienation effectively conveyed, with Celia Craig plaintive in the cor anglais solos and William Houghton bracing if a little strident in his trumpet contributions.

Stylistically, On the Transmigration of Souls invokes specifically ’American’ precedents: the taped backdrop of names uttered as a roll-call brought to mind procedures in Steve Reich’s Different Trains and The Cave, while the crescendoing outburst towards the close recalls the ’Wild Nights’ movement in Adams’s own Harmonium. Indeed, several of his earlier works seem to flit past against the cadential patterns of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, which provided a viable – conceptual as well as musical – framework, as if Adams were taking stock of his own development in the light of events around him. The choral setting of missing-person memorials was thoughtfully and effectively worked into the texture, with the Southend children’s choirs making an especially plangent contribution.

If the piece has a failing, it is the relative one of musical means being deficient to expressive ends. Put another way, there’s little here of intrinsic musical interest, such as would sustain revival of the work in the future. But such can hardly have been Adams’s intention, in what stands as a meaningful, if inevitably provisional testament to events whose deeper implications have hardly begun to be considered.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 1 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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