Prom 17: Turnage Triptych (Part 2)

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Uninterrupted Sorrow [BBC commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto (for the Left-hand)
Vaughan Williams
Job: A Masque for Dancing

Louis Lortie (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 1 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In a Proms season where castanets are more conspicuous than commissions, the prospect of a new orchestral work from Mark-Anthony Turnage was even more enticing than usual. He delivered the central panel of his triptych, which represents the culmination so far of his work as Associate Composer to the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The first panel, A Quick Blast, is scored for woodwind, brass and percussion and the final work will focus on the string section.

Uninterrupted Sorrow, however, is scored for the largest orchestra Turnage has yet used, including six horns and two tubas. Because it is the middle movement (all three works are also designed to stand alone) and because of the work’s title, it seemed likely that Uninterrupted Sorrow would represent Turnage’s take on extended-adagio form. In the event, much of the music is fast and buoyant. The title derives from the song ’Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’ from Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, an album that by rock-journalism convention always attracts the word ’seminal’. (I yield to nobody in my admiration of John Warnaby’s writings on contemporary classical music; however, his programme note suggests that his knowledge of popular music is not so extensive if he thinks that Joni Mitchell is a “soul and blues artist”. Admittedly she is hard to hang a label on.) The song’s lyrics are angry but Turnage conceded (part tongue-in-cheek) in an illuminating pre-concert talk with Barrie Gavin that these days he is more miserable than angry, so it was a surprise to the composer as well that much of the work turned out to be so upbeat.

Admittedly, the spine-tingling wide-spaced chords that open the work usher in the familiar Turnage soundworld of keening lament which continues over into the series of mournful wind duets that represent the composer’s originating inspiration. In fact these duets, and others that appear throughout, are so skilfully woven into the dense orchestral fabric that they often do not register as duets; rather they emerge as one strand in the overall texture. Even the two tubas, a combination used so elementally by Birtwistle and also by Tippett in his Fourth Symphony, rarely attracted attention as a primary sound-source. The trajectory of the piece gradually reveals itself as an ever-quickening vortex, which climaxes with a wild trombone solo, shrieking piccolos and a tutti in rhythmic unison, before rapidly winding down to a strange duo for solo violas (which perhaps points forward to Turnage’s concerto for Yuri Bashmet to be premiered in November). The very final chord – always a Turnage speciality – was perfectly judged, sounding simultaneously resigned and hopeful.

Uninterrupted Sorrow marks a further refinement of Turnage’s musical language, following on from the opera The Silver Tassie and its satellite works, which have shown how the blues-drenched, neon-lit soundworld of the earlier works has evolved into something altogether more supple and universally expressive. It received a hugely sympathetic first performance by an orchestra and conductor who quite clearly believe in this music and who relished and rose to the challenge of music that equally believed in them. The complete performance of the triptych promises a musical event of the highest order – I assume in the Barbican’s January BBCSO Turnage weekend?

Twentieth-century French repertoire, English pastoral and English contemporary – you could have identified this as an Andrew Davis concert in a blindfold test and Davis was in his element, which had been very well devised to place Turnage’s new piece in a meaningful context. Debussy opened the concert in a performance of the utmost tenderness. The diaphanous textures suggested chamber music writ large. Ravel’s concerto, in a powerful and fluent performance by Louis Lortie, expunged memories of the last time I heard this music at the Proms – a disappointing performance by Joanna MacGregor. Lortie’s dazzling technique encompassed gigantic rhetoric to the most delicate cantilena. The central march was vividly realised with soloist and orchestra meshing perfectly.

Vaughan Williams’s Job continued the season’s Old Testament theme and was also apposite for other reasons. VW was perhaps Ravel’s most famous pupil and his Blakeian strain of nature-mysticism interleaved with troubling apparitions is a synthesis also distilled in the more recent work of Turnage. The music has dated but in the right way, as Stravinsky said of Varèse. Davis loves this music and gave Vaughan Williams’s magnificent score an authentic visionary glow. The pentatonic rhapsodic passages never drifted aimlessly, while the malevolent, satanic elements – with hindsight so reminiscent of the ’Scherzo of the Sixth Symphony – were powerfully energised (Satan’s slaying of the sons and wives at the end of the third scene was truly terrifying). Solo woodwind playing was particularly fine, as it was throughout the concert, while Michael Davis stole the show with his rapturous solo in the seventh scene. Just before that, the stand-in organ had acquitted itself well in the apparition of Satan, even if one missed the floor-shaking properties of the genuine RAH beast, currently slumbering. There was one striking oddity – can there ever have been a concert containing a Turnage piece where the only appearance of a saxophone was in a work by Vaughan Williams?

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday, 6 August, at 2 o’clock

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