Prom 23: 6th August 2001 – Man-o’-war

Ian Wilson
Man-o’-War (BBC commission: world premiere)
Mozart
Sinfonia concertante in E flat, K364
Arvo Part
Fratres
Shostakovich
Symphony No.1 in F minor

Nobuko Imai (viola)
Ulster Orchestra conducted by Dmitri Sitkovetsky (violin)

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Reviewed by: Jason Boyd

Reviewed: 6 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Man-o’-War has two meanings – an old English name for a warship, and a dangerous sea-creature. (36-year-old Ian Wilson, from Northern Island, also points out that Manowar is a village outside Dublin.)

Quick to dismiss any programmatic aspect to his work, Wilson explains that he is “never trying to interpret the phrase (Man-o’-war) musically, only to use it for my own ends within the larger scheme of the musical demands.”

Wilson’s use of the orchestra is that of layering textures, such as rich, dark timbres of brass and bass strings against the higher register of the violins, which create a sense of space and atmosphere. No purposeful sense of metre was felt; percussion used in quick flurries to increase dramatic impact. The use of quarter-tones in the brass is particularly effective. Man-o’-War is mostly quick and energetic, driven by melodies which are occasionally submerged in the surrounding texture, revolving around a number of motives.

Wilson’s musical credo is, “everything is possible, but not everything is beneficial”. For Wilson, compositional choices are “subservient to the expression and emotional distillation of the idea, the generating force behind the work”. The 12-minute Man-o’-War is successful in achieving the composer’s intention – the motion and strength associated with a warship combined with a sense of danger from the sea.

It was a little disconcerting to be then thrown into some delightful Mozart. This ’double concerto’ has a potential balance problem in that a pairing of violin and viola will favour the violin, casting its softer-toned and less-agile partner into a secondary role. Aware of this, Mozart wrote the viola part in D major asking that the viola be tuned a semitone higher so that it sounds in E flat – the tension of the viola strings are increased and can be tonally more penetrating. Although Sitkovetsky was livelier overall than Nobuko Imai, their dialogue in the beautiful slow movement was especially pleasing.

Arvo Part’s Fratres – brothers – was originally written for five strings, five winds and two percussionists; Part has now made six arrangements of it over seventeen years.Here for solo violin, strings and percussion, Sitkovetsky took the solo role. Written in Part’s ’Tintinnabuli’ style – a melodic line accompanied by triadic harmony – I was a little unconvinced by Sitkovetsky’s use of rubato and excessive emphasis on the beginning note of each violin flourish in music requiring even-tone and subtle nuances.Even so, Sitkovetsky’s performance was engaging and attractive; he played the very high melody towards the end beautifully.

Shostakovich’s First Symphony is a remarkably accomplished symphonic debut. His economical use of motives and almost theatrical exchanges of solo instruments contribute to this being a very individual work. The use of piano brings a welcome timbre to the texture; so too the thematic role of percussion.

Sitkovetsky led a punchy, solid performance. Tempos were not rushed, and a good balance of sound was achieved. A fine performance and a successful evening for Sitkovetsky and the Ulster Orchestra.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Tuesday, 14 August, at 2 o’clock

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