Prom 28: 10th August 2001

Poul Ruders
Studium (BBC/Danish National Radio SO co-commission – UK premiere)
Symphony No.4
Symphony No.2 in D

Evelyn Glennie & Gert Mortensen (percussion)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Those surveying the programme of tonight’s concert may have been put in mind of the three-part Proms that were a regular feature of the late Sir William Glock’s era. In fact, logistical rather than aesthetic criteria determined the format, the platform layout of Poul Ruders’s new piece not lending itself to quick rearrangement before the Lutoslawski. So, two 20-minute intervals for a concert of barely 80 minutes duration, which inhibited the momentum that should build naturally over the course of an evening. The Lutoslawski and Sibelius in a 60-minute second half might have been preferable.

Studium had been among the most eagerly anticipated of this year’s commissions. The Safri Duo’s decision to pull out of the premiere, in favour of a more lucrative ’crossover’ gig (what a shame their musical outlook is so behind the times!), was offset by percussionists of the standing of Glennie and Mortensen replacing them. The platform layout – two percussive panoplies at either side of the platform and an orchestra rich in wind and brass but without violas and cellos – promised an intriguing interaction on several levels.

So what went wrong? Essentially, these interactions failed to generate much in the way of a musical or emotional frisson: the percussion writing made elaborate use of its industrial quantities of instruments, with a polyrhythmic interplay that was engaging but hardly revelatory; the orchestral writing increased in complexity according to Ruders’s ’minimorphosis’ technique of melodic and rhythmic transformation, employed to compulsive effect in the fine Second Symphony of 1996, but here resulting in an atmospheric backdrop that failed to interlock.

The “stupefying virtuosic display” promised as the outcome of this process will have held no terrors for those familiar with the pyrotechnics of Stomu Yamash’ta, or the drum fusillades of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. The understated conclusion, with the percussionists drawn together through the magnetic attraction of their clashed cymbals, was striking as a symbolic mating-game, but of little point musically. Studium is an eventful sixteen minutes of activity, but a relative non-event as a composition.

However unintentionally, Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony has established itself as a mainstay at the Proms. This was the fourth performance since the composer directed the memorable UK premiere eight years ago, in what proved his last British concert. Easy to say with hindsight, but the poetic clarinet melody that emerges in the opening bars seems to look back to the Symphonic Variations which had marked Lutoslawski’s composing debut fifty-four years previously, as if closing the circle on a lifetime’s creativity. Indeed, though the ’classical’ control over the 21-minute span is as total as in any work of his maturity, a valedictory quality does give the music a sense of finality (though the composer reckoned he had a fifth symphony complete in his head in the months before his death).

Thomas Dausgaard’s account was superbly realised, deriving a seamless continuity from the work’s two-movement format. The dynamic surges of the opening movement were held in check so that evolving material burst forth with new vitality in its lengthier successor, which ensured that the underlying mood was maintained unbroken through the coruscating toccata section and into the principal theme’s climactic restatement: a memorable instance of emotion intensified through being objectified. The punchy, no-nonsense coda wrapped up proceedings with masterly inevitability.

Dausgaard’s Sibelius was persuasive too. While the opening Allegretto’s continuity of pulse slipped in its latter stages, its sub-structure innovations were convincingly conveyed. The slow movement, never easy to hold together, had the right cumulative quality in its two-stage intensification – the baleful coda confirming that, if the composer’s original scenario is to be believed, Death came to Don Juan in no uncertain terms (would that one could say the same for the mobile-phone owner who twice interrupted the movement at key points). The scherzo was fleet of foot, with a rustic quality to the trio’s oboe theme as delightful as it was unexpected, while the finale’s ’big tune’ had emotion without grandiloquence. Dausgaard obtained some striking wind subtleties in the circling motion of the second theme, building on its restatement to an impulsive, striving coda.

Save for some rather blatant playing from individual brass and a missed flute entry in the finale, the BBC Philharmonic responded well to Dausgaard’s expressive, batonless direction. Two intervals had clearly done little to dampen his enthusiasm on his Proms debut. As an encore, the ’Herdsmaid’s Dance’ from Hugo Alfven’s ballet, The Mountain King, was heard twice, preceded second-time-around by the tranquil ’In the wood’ from the same work. Unexpected but welcome ’Scandinaviana’ from a conductor British orchestras should be looking to engage.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 16 August, at 2 o’clock

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