Prom 22: Visions and Journeys

Composer Portrait – Anthony Payne

The Enchantress Plays
Empty Landscape – Heart’s Ease *

Anthony Payne in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Ben Hudson (bassoon) & Jeremy Young (piano); Jane’s Minstrels conducted by Rebecca Miller *

5 / 8 / 2002, Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19
Visions and Journeys [BBC commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.83

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 5 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was an evening of three pieces linked by a single concept – regression as progression. In the “Composer Portrait”, Anthony Payne alluded to this as an important step in his own development, the moment when he amalgamated his interest in Ligeti and other contemporaries and the Second Viennese School with the English tradition. Visions and Journeys is heavily influenced by Payne’s holidays in the Scilly Islands – the inspiration of nature is heard. The Enchantress Plays is a meditation on A. E. Housman’s poems – a folk-like evocation of stillness by repeated motifs and long-held notes. So there is as much Vaughan Williams in his work as Schoenberg; it is recognisably contemporary but reassuringly English.

Visions and Journeys is also a reflection on tranquillity. Where there is motion it is, as Payne explained in an admirably direct programme note, the harmonious action of sea and wind. It is not a programmatic work, but it is certainly mood-painting, far more ’visions’ than ’journeys’ in any musical sense. I did not respond to the work – Payne’s intentions run the risk of a flabby, almost anaemic result, barely salvaged by the ’flooding’ peroration. There is no doubt that it is a major step for the composer to establish his individual voice again after completing Elgar’s Third Symphony. “To stop thinking like Elgar”, as he said in the interview, and starting thinking as himself. Similarly, in the new work’s long paragraphs, in the fragments of melody and in the expansive idiom of the writing, the influence of Elgarian style is clear. The playing of the BBCSO under Andrew Davis was warm and sympathetic throughout.

Elgar and Brahms also looked both back and forward: the former’s evocation of mediaeval French chivalry and the latter’s classical yet passionate concerto were an appropriate frame for the Payne. Froissart is heavily derivative of the Prelude to Wagner’s Mastersingers; despite suitably gallant playing, it is exposed as a paler imitation.

So to Evgeny Kissin’s Brahms. On the one hand, always interesting, masterly in technique and conception, carrying the orchestra with him in some frighteningly fast tempos possible only because of his superb virtuosity, and meltingly lyrical in the slow movement. On the other, for those of us who grew up on Gilels’s gravitas, or aware of the single-mindedness of recent Brendel or Pollini recitals, this was too nervy and driven an interpretation, too disjointed, each detail miraculously perfect yet creating a patchwork when Brahms is a single-woven tapestry.

Very few pianists have enough weight and brilliance of sound to fill the Albert Hall. Kissin is certainly one of them, and for sheer pianistic talent – as his Hungarian Dance (I presume his own arrangement, not Brahms’s) and Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ’Scherzo’ (courtesy of Rachmaninov) again showed – he simply has no equal. He interpreted the concerto as a vehicle for virtuosity – witness the headlong conclusion to the first movement or the gallop of the ’Scherzo’. The piece is usually seen as the opposite, where the soloist must make particular efforts to integrate his contribution with the orchestra. Kissin does not change my preference for something more interior and understated in Brahms, but I would not deny its wit and deep feeling. Kissin similarly looks both forward and back; he is the greatest inheritor of the nineteenth-century virtuosic tradition playing today, and the best representative of modern standards in professional perfectionism.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Friday, 9 August, at 2 o’clock

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