Prom 44: Stravinsky’s The Firebird

Samy Moussa
Symphony No. 2
BBC co-commission: European premiere

Dmitry Shostakovich
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major

Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird – complete ballet (1910)

Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Gemma New

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 18 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

After their exertions the previous evening in Kurtág’s Endgame the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were in more familiar territory last night as Gemma New made her Proms debut in a programme of interest and variety which drew a full house.  Born in New Zealand, New has already been appointed principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra after a spell as principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She is an imposing and refreshing presence on the podium with a rather angular conducting style, expansive arms, and a cajoling left hand. 

Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet in its full version from 1910 was the centrepiece of the programme and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played it with a full complement of strings and brass.  One of the potential pitfalls of the complete Firebird is that divorced from its theatrical setting much of the first half can seem slow and languorous.  This problem was avoided and New secured playing that was animated and maintained momentum without detracting from the overall coherence of the piece. 

New conducted with an ear for detail and a feeling for orchestral texture, although the tempo for the dance of the princesses with their golden apples was too quick. The early scenes in the enchanted garden had charm and the brief moment of the submission of the Firebird was played with sadness by the solo viola. Woodwind solos throughout were finely played and nicely balanced and there was a suitably doleful bassoon for the Lullaby. Brass, both onstage and off, had splendour. There could have been greater urgency in sequences such as the arrival of the grotesques and the Infernal Dance seemed too restrained.  The famous Firebird horn solo was delivered with dignity by Lauren Reeve Rawlings and the closing fanfares were radiant rather than pompous. It was a clear, musical, fastidious account of Stravinsky’s great ballet score that rather lacked the sense of fantasy and the darkness of the fairytale that conductors like Gergiev and Jurowski have brought to the work.

Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto – itself used as a great ballet score for Kenneth MacMillan’s glorious Concerto – was the second item on the programme and had the benefit of Pavel Kolesnikov fully in command at the piano. Written for Shostakovich’s son Maxim, who gave the first performance, it can seem a lightweight work. Kolesnikov was dapper and sparky in the first movement allegro and the slightly slower tempo than usual allowed New to bring out some nice orchestral detail. The opening of the Andante was wistfully phrased by New with eloquent strings and Kolesnikov’s playing was easeful and unaffected. The concluding 

march-like allegro seemed darker and mordant rather than merely cheeky with Kolesnikov and New hinting at hidden depths behind the light-hearted façade.  It was a reading that was musically and dramatically motivated throughout and pianist and conductor were as one. Kolesnikov’s encore was Bach’s B Minor Prelude touchingly played – Kolesnikov’s red patterned silk trousers are the clear men’s fashion hit of the season. 

Samy Moussa’s Symphony No.2, receiving its European premiere, opened the first half. Moussa, born in Montreal and based in Berlin, has spoken persuasively of his belief in a symphonic tradition and the need to compose works that can be seen as universal.  Twenty minutes long, the work is densely packed with attractive orchestration – flugelhorns, euphonium, tuba – and shimmering percussion – glockenspiel, xylophone, and vibraphone to the fore. It opens with a Wagner-like slow brass fanfare and sometimes Sibelius seems not too far away. Overall, the sound was clear and bright and half-way through the orchestra suddenly reduces to a string quartet to surprising effect.  It has an attractive quality, but it did leave the listener wanting something more. Gemma New had the measure of the piece and seemed in control, as she did throughout the evening. It was an impressive debut.    

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