Prom 20: BBCSO/Gustavo Gimeno, with Vadim Gluzman

Bernard Herrmann
Vertigo – suite

Violin Concerto in, Op.35

Sergey Prokofiev
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op.44

Vadim Gluzman (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Gimeno

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 30 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Originally built around the UK premiere of Mason Bates’s Piano Concerto, a score first heard more than 18 months ago in Philadelphia, Daniil Trifonov’s continuing inability (or unwillingness) to obtain the appropriate travel documents necessitated a rethink. The present vaguely ‘cinematic’ themed Prom was a late brainwave. Two works derived from pre-existing Hollywood movies (though the chronology of the Korngold is disputed) preceded a third, programmatic despite itself, pieced together by perhaps the greatest of all film composers. Not that the Albert Hall was more than half full, the disincentive of the absent ‘novelty’, Henry Wood’s term for new music, still affecting turnout. Or was it the rain? The weekend tourist contingent was much in evidence initially – the amateur filming of and scrolling during performances is now completely out of hand – but the worst miscreants left at the halfway point.

In a surprise on-screen appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Technicolor remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) the composer of Vertigo can be seen conducting in the Royal Albert Hall; the music is not his own but a rejigged version of the Storm Cloud Cantata by Arthur Benjamin composed for Hitchcock’s 1934 original. Bernard Herrmann was never engaged to conduct at the Proms and not one of his concert pieces has been revived since his death. The biographical note printed in the programme booklet simply waved them away, without even checking how many symphonies the man composed. So how ‘good’ was the three-part Vertigo suite sampled here? The performance certainly seemed efficient, the Royal Albert Hall organ substituting for the specified Hammond organ with such discretion that one barely noticed its presence. As throughout the night, the strings were underpowered from my perch in the stalls but it mattered less in this idiosyncratic distillation of – what? – Delius or Holst perhaps, scored with exquisite care. All three movements being short, only the last of them, the film’s central love scene, really worked in the concert context. What Gimeno’s conducting lacked was the kind of passion and grit we know Herrmann required of his collaborators though he might have appreciated the unforced tempos. There was elegance, clarity and precision with the longish stick, Claudio Abbado a plausible visual model.  

The Korngold was altogether riper in this account although it doesn’t have to be. Vadim Gluzman is a powerful player with old-school ideas of tonal projection. It comes as no surprise to learn that Isaac Stern was an early mentor. Many violinists cannot be heard in the big barn. Not so this one but was his unremittingly powerful account not ultimately a little wearing? The intonation needs to be spot on for this kind of single-mindedness. The conductor put on the breaks to indulge the finale’s mock-Hollywood climax without making it clear whether there were inverted commas in place. Elsewhere he appeared to have a more carefully inflected performance in mind than the one actually delivered. Gluzman’s encore was a Serenade by Valentin Silvestrov, the composer newly fashionable of course but not easily interpreted when his utterances encode the idea of civilisation on the brink, sometimes as here in the simplest terms. The piece needed less insistent vibrato.

After the interval, the lighting team gave us a pink glow to replace the green and we were pitched into yet more uncertain territory. Prokofiev, who liked to think of himself as an opera composer, had a habit of setting unlikely source material and never more so than the quasi-supernatural love triangle from which he then hacked out a Third ‘Symphony’. For decades the music found readier acceptance in this form though closer to our own time directors have relished the original’s lurid mix of heartfelt expressionism and camply comic Grand Guignol. If tight rhythmic definition, textural elucidation and a general lightness of approach were meant to characterize Gimeno’s approach, not unlike Abbado’s own perhaps (he conducted it at a Prom in 1977 before anyone else), they did not survive exposure to the erratic acoustic. Slated to take over at Madrid’s Teatro Real Opera, Gimeno started as a percussionist but it was the music’s big string lines that needed help. Renata’s big first movement theme barely registered at the start which made much of what followed seem mushy and inconsequential. The inner movements were much more memorable with plenty of muted spookiness in the second and more demonstrative poltergeist activity in the third. The trio had the Mediterranean warmth of William Walton though not for the first time one wondered quite what function is served by such an abrupt contrast. The finale worked as well or as badly as the opening movement: plenty of heft and thrust, not much audible purpose. Prokofiev’s fault, and that of the Victorian architects? Yes, but only to a degree.

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