Prom 42: 21st August 2001

El salon Mexico
Adagio for strings
Leonard Bernstein
Symphony No.1, “Jeremiah”
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
Symphony in three movements

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Stephen Hough (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

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Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A great agenda of pieces, one offering thoughtful contrasts and links. All the music was composed between, or gestated from (Copland), 1932 and 1945; all of it was premiered in America (the Copland in Mexico, appropriately).

This juxtaposition offered more than chronology. Both Rachmaninov and Stravinsky had ’moved’ to the States – ’Pag Rhap’ was actually composed in Switzerland – and display American influences; both symphonies are in three movements, both have extra-musical stimuli, and both had composer-conducted premieres. Barber transformed his string quartet ’adagio’ into a universal piece, which now has film and memorial associations; Rachmaninov’s commentary on Paganini’s violin caprice is among his most inventive pieces, animated and mellifluous – the appearance of the ’dies irae’ casts a shadow, which can be related to the last-movement lament of ’Jeremiah’. Copland’s father-figure status in American music, his developing of a definable musical language, incorporating ’popular’ elements, brought filial loyalty from Bernstein; Stravinsky writes rather Coplandesque chords in the link between his symphony’s second and third movements. The piano – a ’non-concerto’ if virtuosic role in the Rachmaninov, a concertante one (with harp) in Stravinsky, and featuring in Copland’s and Bernstein’s scoring.

The exuberant and colourful aspects of El Salon and ’Pag Rhap’ found the BBCSO in fine form – the difficult rhythms of Copland well negotiated, especially given Slatkin’s relaxed manner, which exposed lines and inflections and the means to play them; the evoking of a lazy, hot afternoon – including ’drunken’ slurs (musical ones!) – and a vibrant landscape were shiningly presented. Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony premiere in 1938 (Chavez had conducted the 1936 Mexican outing).

As Copland was putting the finishing touches to El Salon, Samuel Barber was completing his Op.11 String Quartet; by 1938, Toscanini had suggested the ’Adagio’ as a concert item for string orchestra and conducted its first performance … it’s fair to say that Adagio for Strings hasn’t looked back since then, except in an innately nostalgic sense, Barber’s trademark. Slatkin led a spacious, 10-minute, account, not quite as broad as Bernstein’s ’late’ recording of it; Slatkin’s own brand of uninhibited honesty charted an inexorable climax, its impact somewhat diminished in the Hall.

Stephen Hough’s assumption of the solo part in ’Pag Rhap’ – a composer/Stokowski premiere – overcame all the technical demands in the most musical of ways. Always conscious of the orchestra, Hough’s rhythmically crystalline articulation, his sparkling dexterity and his lovely lyrical playing met Rachmaninov’s challenges comprehensively; Slatkin’s vivid conducting of the music’s character and detail – over-prominent horns and cymbals aside – was in keeping with Adrian Jack’s programme comment that the Rachmaninov has “… in addition to tender passages, a lean and biting quality, as well as a certain brashness, for which we have America to thank”. The work’s pay-off was wittily final; the audience’s focus on the famous 18th-variation, here unindulgent and blooming – and the Barber – was tangible.

The symphonies – one absolute masterpiece, one underrated. The latter is ’Jeremiah’, approved for its Pittsburgh SO premiere in 1944 by then Music Director Fritz Reiner, which reports Bernstein’s Stravinsky-like ability to absorb all things musical and put them back with a personality and ’cleverness’ that resists charges of plagiarism. ’Jeremiah’ begins in preludial foreboding and angst; the scherzo – The Rite of Spring meets Broadway – with its Pagan rhythms, stratospheric horn writing, and the most wonderful pre-West Side Story lyricism, embodies Bernstein’s open-ended musical sympathies, Stravinsky and Hindemith to the fore. The finale sets verses (in Hebrew) of the Book of Lamentations, the wailing for Jerusalem; Bernstein anticipated the Holocaust with a setting both declamatory and consoling, one indebted to Copland in the orchestral bridge that connects the setting.

Susan Bickley, taking a night off from being Birtwistle’s ’Ghost’ at Glyndebourne (The Last Supper), was outstanding in her operatic delivery and sensitive phrasing. This powerful and committed Proms performance should have won ’Jeremiah’ many new friends, which it deserves. I urge you to try Slatkin’s new Chandos recording of it. (Another link – the first of Bernstein’s three recordings of ’Jeremiah’ was made in 1945 – with the St Louis Symphony, which Leonard Slatkin was Music Director of for many years.)

While Lenny was completing ’Jeremiah’, Stravinsky was watching film of “scorched-earth tactics in China”. The ’War Symphony’ element – goose-stepping Nazis, Allies heading to victory – can now be sidelined to concentrate on the music itself (as abstracted in the title), ditto the Bernstein.

Stravinsky’s concise, concentrated work is a remarkable fusion of invention, structure and Bachian clarity. Slatkin very successfully brought out all the contrapuntal magnificence while retaining the music’s power and tenacity (although the piano and harp would have benefited from more forward placing; on Radio 3 the balance was fine). I didn’t quite get ’1-2-3-end’ at the resolve of the gritty, determined final movement – ’3’ was overlooked in my reckoning – but there was plenty of rhythmic punch throughout. The slow movement – possibly derived for a film, The Song of Bernadette, but not used as such – forms a radiant centre; in this concert it proved an inverse to Barber’s and Bernstein’s overt emotionalism.

A stimulating programme admirably brought off. As Slatkin’s BBCSO tenure continues and develops, I hope he will persuade the percussion to more and subtler colours, the brass to more integration, tonal variety and invulnerability.

  • Part of this Prom – Barber, Copland, Rachmaninov – will be shown on BBC1 Television on Thursday, 30 August, at 11.05 p.m. (An opportunity missed to relay to a bigger audience the less familiar Bernstein and Stravinsky!)
  • Leonard Slatkin’s new BBCSO CD of Bernstein’s Symphonies 1 & 2 is on Chandos CHAN 9889 (click here to read Steve Lomas’s review)

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