Prom 17: 2nd August 2001 – ROYAL PALACE

Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1(revised version of 1917)
Weill, orchestrated Gunther Schuller
Royal Palace

Dejanira – Janice Watson (soprano)
Husband – Stephen Richardson (bass)
Yesterday’s Lover – Ashley Holland (baritone)
Tomorrow’s Admirer – Peter Bronder (tenor)
Young Fisherman – Huw-Rhys Evans (tenor)
Old Fisherman – Clive Bayley (bass)
Off-stage voice – Camilla Tilling (soprano)
Apollo Voices

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis

Photo of Ashley Holland (Yesterday’s Lover)

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Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Now Conductor Laureate of the BBC Symphony, Sir Andrew Davis made the second of two welcome BBCSO re-appearances this season in a contrasted programme which, if not more than the sum of its parts, made for an engrossing evening.

An unlikely curtain-raiser, Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra was largely put on the map by the BBCSO back in the 1930s, including a 1933 account conducted by the composer. Surprising that this was only its third Proms performance and the first since 1962. But then, what Calum MacDonald aptly describes as its “part-writing of extreme intricacy” is hardly heard to advantage in the ample Royal Albert Hall acoustic, which blunts the impact of the more fully-scored variations while congealing the exquisitely-voiced textures of the chamber ones. A pity, as Davis was clearly in sympathy with its bracing vitality and astringent lyricism. The introduction conveyed real mystery as the note-row conjures itself out of nothingness, the theme yearningly phrased, and the extended finale avoiding nearly all unnecessary deviations to a powerful conclusion, the all-important B-A-C-H motif sounding impassively above the accumulating activity.

Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto followed in bizarre succession, its musical content the stuff of the plethora of such works that the nineteenth-century produced. At least, in the 1917 revision, thematic contrasts are highlighted and the follow-through of the opening movement is pared down to essentials. Leif Ove Andsnes shaped the effusive solo part with sculpted precision, and found a balletic grace in the Andante’s ruminative tones. The finale was despatched with due virtuosity, relaxing for the improvisatory central episode (a procedure Rachmaninov’s larger-scale works were to make their own). Twenty-seven minutes passed enjoyably enough – as did a few more when Andsnes offered a Chopin song, ’Mes joies’, transcribed by Liszt, as an encore – but this is hardly even early Rachmaninov at his best. If another name was at the top of the score …

A similar observation could be made about Weill’s Royal Palace, yet justifiable only in terms of an idiom in the process of emerging from its varied stylistic chrysalis. This diverse one-acter gained an appreciative response at last year’s BBC ’Weill Weekend’, and deserved revival. Iwan Goll’s libretto is very much a fable of disillusion permeated by the aura of the decadent – and degenerating! – 1920s. As with Brecht’s plays of the period, social satire has yet to evolve into acute polemic, giving the narrative an indecisive, enervating quality in accord with the era it supposedly undermines.

The score is synoptic of its era – Hindemithian vocal parlando rubbing shoulders with the harmonic and rhythmic intricacy of Prokofiev. In effect, Royal Palace is an opera-ballet – extended dance sequences intensifying the central theme of alienation, as the anti-heroine, Dejanira, rejects the tempting of her suitors in favour of a watery transcendence.

Janice Watson brought the right imperious quality and vocal expressiveness for Dejanira – the focus of attention both scenically and musically, carrying off her stage exit with aplomb. The suitors made a well-complemented trio, with attractive cameos from Huw-Rhys Evans and Camilla Tilling. Davis brought out a wealth of sensuous, translucent detail, saving the mock-Ibsenian pay-off for himself. A Prom revival of either of the Weill-Kaiser collaborations from the period would be well worthwhile.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Tuesday, 7 August, at 2 o’clock

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