Prom 30: 12th August 2001

Three Places in New England
Notations I-IV & VII (UK premiere of VII)
Cello Concerto (BBC commission: world premiere)

Paul Watkins (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson

Photograph of Tobias Picker by Richard Frank

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Without wishing to infer the ’Boulez is God’ epithet still often encountered, it can be said that a Boulez premiere is an event. In the case of the orchestral Notations, additions to the nearly quarter-century old set of four have been imminent for some while. V-VIII were scheduled for performance by the Chicago Symphony back in 1994. By 1997, only ’Notation VII’ had been realised, and tonight received its UK premiere.

Has the wait been worthwhile? Yes, and not only because this six-and-a-half minute piece is a substantial addition to a series which, now with a playing time of around 17 minutes, is the more viable as a concert-length work in its own right. Marked ’Hiératique’ in the 1945 piano version, ’Notation VII’ has acquired a ’Lent’ indication in its orchestral guise and grown from its initial 80-second duration in the course of far-reaching transformations.

Of particular interest is the actual sound of the orchestral version, its intricacy and translucency placing it in the orbit of such major recent works as the (presumed definitive) ’… explosante-fixe …’ and Sur Incises. Placed second in the sequence, however, any outward contrast with the 1970s Notations was outweighed by a demonstrable continuity of approach – the orchestral writing sensuous and visceral, as determined by the substance of the piano originals.

David Robertson had clearly devoted much preparation to ’Notation VII’, so that its many timbre shadings were made to work in the acoustic expanse of the Albert Hall. Indeed, the set as a whole was done justice to, with a rhythmic inhibition in Notation II (the last of the present sequence performed I, VII, IV, III, II) the only marginal disappointment. A five-piece Notations cycle is thus a reality, if only for now …

The contrast with the Picker premiere was appreciable. Tobias Picker is a name to reckon with in the US, with a string of orchestral commissions over the last two decades, and a second opera to be unveiled in Dallas this November. Like many composers of his (1950s) generation, his music has moved from a ’modernist’ standpoint to one whose ’romantic’ aesthetic is uppermost. In Picker’s case, the focus is on subtlety of gesture and syntax, rather than emotional self-indulgence employed as a means of communication. This rigorous objectivity, ostensibly the link with Brahms that has frequently been made, runs intently through the concerto’s four movements.

The slow opening outlines the thematic elements to be elaborated in, respectively, a swift Stravinskian scherzo, a robust Hindemithian intermezzo, and a ruminative finale where the spirit of Barber returns in circumspect nostalgia. All very low-key, and commendably seeking to draw the listener into its preoccupations. Yet whether or not Picker’s sense of key relationships is overtly directional, it fails to motivate the musical discourse to any appreciable degree, resulting in a craftsmanly ’brown study’ which, if it evokes Brahms at all, is in the pejorative sense of an earlier era. Paul Watkins responded ably to its pensiveness and rhythmic precision, with Robertson ensuring clarity at all times from the almost ’classical’ instrumentation. Thought provoking, if only because it promised more than it delivered.

Opening the concert was an account of Ives’s Three Places… which, for all its rough-edges and quirks of balance, had the measure of the music’s intense reliving of the past through an idiom defiantly transcending its present. The Janacek too was one of conviction. If the initial brass intrada lacked presence, this was in keeping with a reading more lyrical than has become customary, with the work’s Czech antecedents readily invoked. If there was a common thread linking the programme, it was Robertson’s standing as a committed, versatile conductor.

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