Prom 5: Flicka’s Proms Debut

Composer Portrait – David Sawer

David Sawer in conversation with Andrew McGregor.


Catrin Finch (harp); musicians from the Royal Academy of Music

23 / 7 / 2002, Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Piano Concerto [BBC commission: first performance]
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version, abridged Slatkin]

Rolf Hind (piano)
Frederica von Stade (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 23 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

While noting that Anthony Payne notches up his third and fourth Proms’ commissions this season, it is not given to many composers to receive a second from the Proms, still less when barely into their ’forties. With Byrnan Wood in 1992, David Sawer produced one of the finest works written for the Proms in the last decade, one that in an ideal world would have had many performances since. The London premiere of his The greatest happiness principle, in the 1997 season, also made its mark. So expectations ran high for Sawer’s new piano concerto written for Rolf Hind, who had previously recorded Sawer’s superb The Melancholy of Departure for NMC (D020S), a work which repays many hearings.

At the heart of Sawer’s music lies a striking paradox. On the one hand, the tactile shapes that his works are built from give the distinct impression that they could have been realised just as successfully in another art form such as painting, theatre or film. On the other hand, there is a primacy of sound source in the music that makes it unthinkable that it should exist in any other medium but the audible. This thought had already been prompted by the two works performed in the pre-concert “Composer Portrait” in the V & A. Goodnight (1990) for a mixed quintet is absolutely characteristic of its composer in its rotation of nugget-like scale fragments, ticking ostinatos and gently-rocking rhythms. The nocturnal, dream-like quality of the work is further enhanced by a form of Chinese whispers whereby musical figures gradually morph into new shapes. The exquisite Between for solo harp was a commission from the Britten-Pears School and, indeed, it bore more than a passing resemblance to Britten’s own harp suite. It was beautifully realised by Catrin Finch.

Reading Sawer’s programme note for the concerto, I doubt I was the only person who turned over and assumed that a page was missing – no, his introduction was just five lines long. On reflection, however, it seemed to say everything that needed to be said. The music itself wrong-footed in exactly the same way. The work’s two continuous movements (fast/slow) amounted to a curiously foreshortened structure lasting 11 minutes. The first has a basic rule that the piano and the orchestra must not sound together. This resulted in a kaleidoscopic, hocketing texture that is suggestive of the work of Andriessen or Martland; Sawer produces something altogether lighter and more playful. Indeed there were moments when the harmony coalesced into a kind of distorted cocktail ambience. As ever, Sawer’s textures are crystal-clear and bone-dry.

Barely used to the gameplan of the first movement, the sudden collapse of momentum announced the radically different world of the second, the orchestra acting as a giant sounding-box for the piano, colouring and overlaying its every utterance. Glacial chords are slowly built up and then deconstructed until a tentative, astral lyricism emerges. Finally, a varied repeat of the first movement’s wonky mechanisms starts up that seems to begin a finale, but it was all a trick. The piece was over.

As the piece came in at two-thirds of its advertised length, it was difficult not to feel a little short-changed at a first hearing. I strongly suspect that the length will cease to be an issue and the listener can focus instead on the marvellously inventive orchestral writing. Further performances might also reveal a truer picture of the first movement. For all the skill of pianist and orchestra, the gears didn’t quite mesh and one never really had the feeling that every part of the orchestra knew exactly where its particular piece of the jigsaw fitted. The second movement was better realised and Hind relished his new-found freedom to make a sustained statement after the clockwork figuration of the first.

Every Proms season seems to produce at least one revered world-class artist making their belated Proms debut. In earlier seasons this has included Bernstein and Fischer-Dieskau. This time it was Frederica von Stade who was altogether wonderful. Although there is now a heavy vibrato beat in her middle register above mezzo-forte, Ravel’s mainly parlando vocal setting rarely exposed this. Instead, one could revel in her enchanting, honeyed tones and beautifully floated line. Her articulation of the French text was faultless. The orchestral contribution under Slatkin was less happy, suggestive more of torpor than languor in the second and third songs, while the climax of the first song seemed to surge out of nowhere instead of being the moment the whole song was pointing toward.

Elgar’s In the South got off to a ragged start and only really came together at the end. The downward-fanning discords in the ’arches’ section – one of the most extraordinary passages Elgar ever conceived – should flatten everything before them but here came across as mere harmonic suspensions. Nevertheless Elgar’s resonant, organ-like orchestration registered well in the RAH’s ample acoustics.

Stravinsky compiled three orchestral suites from The Firebird (in 1911, 1919 and 1945). The novelty of Slatkin’s performance was a reduction of his own devising from the original score incorporating some of the connective tissue missing from Stravinsky’s suites and retaining the original orchestration as Stravinsky himself did in the rarely-heard 1911 conflation. It seemed like a good idea on paper and it emerged as a good idea in performance, even if it did beg the question of why not play the whole thing if you’re going to perform this much of it. This was an unfussy and well-executed rendition (Timothy Brown deserves to be singled out for his horn solos). The final peroration was opulent and majestic. My own taste is for something more rhythmically incisive and vividly coloured; however, Slatkin’s approach worked well on its own terms.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast – Friday 26 July at 2 o’clock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content