Prom 34 – Strip-Weave

Idomeneo – Overture and Ballet Music (excerpts)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.58
Strip-Weave [world premiere of revised version]
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Li-Wei (cello)

Ulster Orchestra
Thierry Fischer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the incidental pleasures of this year’s Proms is the chance to hear several little-known works by Prokofiev during the fiftieth anniversary of his death. And there are few works less well known than the Cello Concerto, the original version of what was reworked as the Symphony-Concerto immediately prior to the composer’s death. Commissioned by Gregor Piatigorsky, Prokofiev laboured on the Concerto intermittently during 1933-4, only completing it in 1938. The Moscow premiere was received with bemusement that year, hardly surprising given the Concerto’s open-ended form and taciturn content.

Those reasonably familiar with the Symphony-Concerto will recognise the themes and even certain incidents in the opening ’Andante’, tauter and better focused in its follow-through than it became, while the ensuing ’Allegro giusto’ plays games with a scherzo-rondo format which is intriguing but far from convincing (but then, neither is the weightier and would-be more meaningful presentation of ideas in the later work). The movements here follow without pause, so that the questioning end of the second movement is countered by the relatively substantial main melody of the finale. This proceeds as a sequence of diverse but not always contrasting variations, interspersed with quizzical interludes and a cadenza whose bizarre extremes of register and attack could almost be a product of a later generation. An extended coda recalls the opening of the work as part of a general ’taking stock’, before the cursory closing gesture.

So, a curious but compelling work – less formally secure than the Second Violin Concerto but far more interesting musically and, like the earlier Fifth Piano Concerto, a piece which stands to gain in conviction as performances increase. Li-Wei sounds committed to its cause. Although playing from the score, there was little tentative or uncertain about his playing (but that cadenza could profit from a little subtle editing), nor was his overall interpretation anything but sympathetic. Thierry Fischer conducted attentively, though the difficult orchestral balance caused numerous problems of ensemble and co-ordination along the way. Well worth revival even so, hopefully setting a precedent which others will take up.

Two years into his term as Principal Conductor, Fischer is getting a fresh, positive response from the Ulster Orchestra. This came through in the tense account of the overture to Mozart’s Idomeneo that opened the evening, followed by a selection from the ballet, which was crisply if anonymously delivered. After the interval, Strip-Weave proved a lively, not-so-straightforward calling-card from Kevin Volans, employing instrumental sections in a bracing alternation that readily evokes the North African cloth-making process of the title. Grounded in a post-minimalist language as secure as it is utilitarian, Volans is a composer best served, as here, in small doses.

Certainly the sound and feel of the piece prepared well for Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. There were some good things here: the first movement’s opening paragraph was attractively floated and duly intensified on its reappearance, while the central ’Andante’ found a viable balance between insouciance and wistfulness. Yet the transition of mood and tempo in that opening movement was slackly handled, moving to a coda emotionally earthbound and unevenly articulated. The finale opened expectantly, but the so-called ’Swan Hymn’ was far from magisterial either here or on its reappearance – though Fischer kept a hold on momentum in-between times. The peroration was vivid but hardly life-enhancing, not helped by the curt dispatch of those six final chords.

Of course, it didn’t help that David Robertson and Orchestre National de Lyon gave such a sensitive and completely attuned performance at last year’s Proms: compared to which, tonight’s account – while enthusiastic and not without insight – was no more than an also ran.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Monday 18 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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