Prom 35 – Boston Concerto

Chopin orch. Stravinsky
Nocturne in A flat, Op.32/2 [UK premiere]
Waltz in E flat, Op.18 (Grande valse brillante)
Carter
Boston Concerto [European premiere]
Knussen
Violin Concerto [London premiere]
Stravinsky
Agon

Pinchas Zukerman (violin)

BBC Symphony OrchestraOliver Knussen


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

What promised to be a highlight of the current Proms season – in the guise of a major new orchestral piece by Elliott Carter. 95 in December, Carter has maintained an impressive output over the last two decades, the variety of the works themselves matched by their intrinsic quality. Boston Concerto, premiered by the Boston Symphony and Ingo Metzmacher last April, stands in much the same relationship to his Concerto for Orchestra as Symphonia does to A Symphony of Three Orchestras: in each instance, experience has brought a distillation, even an essentialising, but never a simplification of musical means (something set to continue when Dialogues for piano and orchestra is unveiled early next year, no doubt prompting comparison with the Piano Concerto – that most emotionally intractable of Carter’s major works).

First reaction to Boston Concerto is one of pleasurable bemusement – not on account of the extreme lightness of texture in its earlier stages, but through the building-up of momentum more by inference than in actuality. The pizzicato ritornello that initially separates episodes which focus on different orchestral sections at length serves to incite the music to new expressive heights (or should that be new expressive depths?): a process not unfamiliar in Carter, achieved here with an artlessness which is itself a form of profundity.

The work sounded anything but tentative, however, in this performance by Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony – confident and with not a little finesse. In what must be his first visit to the UK in almost five years, the composer was on hand to acknowledge the applause from a relatively small but audibly appreciative audience.

Good that Knussen himself should have had a significant new work in the concert. At 16 minutes, his Violin Concerto has the impact of a work twice its length – though, unlike earlier orchestral pieces such as the Third Symphony, this is achieved less through formal compression than by concentrating on motivic essentials. All the salient ones are presented in the opening ’Recitative’, expressively characterised in the ensuing ’Aria’, then treated with flair and humour in the closing ’Gigue’. The orchestra, while playing more of an overtly accompanying role than in, say, the Horn Concerto, is awash with incident – an imaginative context for a solo part which sounded nothing if not idiomatically conceived. Pinchas Zukerman has played the work on several occasions since the premiere, and though his tendency to alternate emotive gestures with a ’head down’ approach can be disconcerting, the panache which brought him to prominence over 30 years ago is still much in evidence.

Stravinsky framed proceedings, or rather his orchestrations of two pieces by Chopin – with which he served his apprenticeship to Diaghilev in 1909 – opened the concert, while his final ballet score Agon closed it. The Chopin realisations are inevitably more of historical than musical interest. Compared to the original orchestral works preceding them – Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks – Stravinsky chose here to ’play it safe’, staying within stylistic limits that his late teacher Rimsky-Korsakov might have found enervating. That’s not to deny the sheer professionalism of the task, more than a cut above other orchestrations to have taken cover under the ’Les Sylphides’ epithet. Knussen conducted with obvious enjoyment, though the orchestra’s response was rather more equivocal.

As it was, sadly, to the detriment of parts of Agon, Stravinsky’s celebration of choreographic abstraction that unites energy and elegance to a degree equalled by no subsequent dance score. Musically, the work is a veritable logbook of the composer’s 1950s journey from refracted neo-classicism, via Schoenbergian density, to Webernian poise. While not without character or expressive focus, this performance lacked the implacable tautness the piece ideally needs. In particular, the ’Prelude’ and related Interludes – which sent shock waves through British music of the period – sounded tentative, not to say lacklustre.

It would take a much poorer all-round performance, even so, to make one regret hearing this masterly score. How does Stravinsky maintain stylistic unity, such that the almost literal return of the opening ’Pas de quatre’ closes the work in the most inevitable way imaginable? As so often with Stravinsky, the answer makes the question no less intriguing.



  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday 19 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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